Bhutans efforts might not be enough to save even their ecological haven. Global warming experts and scientists agree that the rise in climate temperature is bringing an onslaught of problems to untouched remote forest lands. In the sub-Artic and Artic, milder winters are creating drier summers, leaving hardwood trees weak and increasingly vulnerable to pests and wildfires. Of the past ten summers in Siberia, eight have seen extreme forest fires. And from Colorado to Washington State, an epidemic of the mountain pine beetle has destroyed a forest area twice the size of Ireland.
The worlds demand for wood and paper products is another huge factor. In 2005, the United Nations released a State of the Worlds Forests report estimating that 3 to 6 billion trees are cut each year.
The US alone consumes 90 million tons of paper each year, about 12,430 square miles of forest. It is a problem that creates an ecological domino effect. When hardwood trees like spruce, pine and other conifers are lost to fire, pests or turned into timber for construction or paper products, less carbon is absorbed in Earths natural carbon sink, which means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and higher global temperatures.
Fortunately Bhutan is not the only country looking to bamboo as the sustainable alternative to hardwood. Fifteen years ago I, David Sands, LEED accredited professional in Maui, wanted to see if we could build the kind of high-end homes that clients wanted with bamboo.
Over 150 bamboo homes later, we have not looked back.
It was simply the right thing to do. I could not go on designing homes unconsciously. People want to build green, but they want something that is as strong as a traditional wood-built structure. Sometimes they are surprised to find out that using bamboo is not only as strong, but it is even stronger.
Bamboo is also becoming the material of choice not only for obvious products like flooring and fencing, but things you might not immediately associate with bamboo, like super soft bath towels. Bamboo Textiles created a process that turns bamboo into rayon-like fibers making bamboo a contender to replace another high water consumption crop, cotton. In fact the May 2007 issue of National Geographic stated this upstart fabric may someday compete with King Cotton. Totally Bamboo, a company based in Southern California has found a lucrative niche selling over three hundred different kinds of bamboo products, including kitchen items like rolling pins, countertops, even sinks.
And there is more good news for forests. From 1933 to 1965 an experiment in Alabama by the Agriculture Department showed that bamboo produced 14 tons of wood per acre (compared to 8 tons of wood per acre of pine). And a study in 2000 by A. Janssen of the Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands showed that bamboo groves also function as a carbon sink, storing four times the amount of CO2 as a comparable sized hardwood forest, and releasing 35 percent more oxygen. That is a lot of carbon storage for a world producing too much CO2.
What has me personally excited about the potential of bamboo is that if we plant enough, we can sequester all the current excess carbon in the atmosphere. It would take a significant amount of acreage, about the size of Texas, but spread out globally it is a real possibility.
Of course that would only sequester the current CO2 in the atmosphere, green energy initiatives and a major time out from burning fossil fuels and clear-cutting forests would be necessary to reduce emission levels to a sustainable amount. But bamboo could give us the time needed to develop current green technologies and create new ones that will power the world more efficiently.
But will bamboo make us happy? In these tough times, the green economy is providing a light at the end of the recession tunnel. By 2012, the bamboo industry alone is estimated to grow to $25 billion, creating new companies and providing jobs to a nation beleaguered with unemployment. With numbers like those, maybe the future will see a rise in Gross National Happiness instead of CO2.