The Climate Smart Forest Economy Program: Transforming Regional Economies Through a Forest-First Approach

Robyn van den Heuvel

The most significant global risks over the next 10 years will be climate change and biodiversity loss, according to the World Economic Forum. However, protecting the world’s green cover cannot come at the cost of access to housing, necessary consumer goods, and secure livelihoods for the global population. To strike a middle ground between ecosystems and people, EIT Climate­-KIC and Dalberg Advisors, among other partners, are jointly working toward balancing the interdependence between forests, people, and nature. 

The urban population worldwide is anticipated to double by 2050, with nearly 90% of this growth occurring in Asia and Africa. This rapid urbanization will introduce numerous complexities, among them an urgent demand for housing. Addressing this growing need with current mainstream material such as concrete, plastic, glass, and steel would entail more solid waste, more carbon emissions, and depletion of more natural resources. Meeting the escalated demands for housing, employment, economic growth, infrastructure, and consumer goods while preventing a climate emergency requires that we rapidly decarbonize the built environment in a way that creates revenue for improved forest management and supports local economies and livelihoods. While the imperative exists to swiftly reduce carbon emissions and rejuvenate biodiversity, this must be achieved while simultaneously guaranteeing that an expanding global population has access to its emerging needs and secure livelihoods. 

Driving this shift is the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program (CSFEP), an evidence-based, action-oriented collaborative of EIT Climate-KIC and Dalberg Advisors, with seed funding from Good Energies Foundation and incubated by Dalberg Catalyst. CSFEP is working toward a world where forests and forest products deliver their maximum benefits to climate, biodiversity, and prosperity. CSFEP collaborates with communities to establish innovative economies that harmonize the requirements of ecosystems and human societies. CSFEP utilizes bio-based resources to fulfill fundamental human needs like shelter, while simultaneously generating local employment opportunities and sustainable forest management revenues. This enables communities to confront their most pressing challenges while concurrently combatting carbon emissions and reversing biodiversity depletion. Rooted in prioritizing forests, the CSFEP model centers on the commitment to utilize natural resources by staying within their regenerative capacities. 

Over the past two years, CSFEP has accelerated impact on 15 forest-to-build projects globally, signaling the model’s potential.  

  • Within India, the collaboration between CSFEP and the Agha Khan Agency for Habitat led to the joint design of residences using regionally obtained, low-carbon, mass-timber hybrid materials in conjunction with community input. This partnership also involved the cultivation of trees to support the expansion of community forestry. 
  • In Guatemala, CSFEP is scaling up an initial pilot with local company CASSA Guatemala. The project teaches rural residents of climate-vulnerable communities to build simple, structurally sound, low-carbon, energy-efficient, climate-resilient houses from locally farmed bamboo (known for its excellent carbon sequestration).  
  • In East Africa, CSFEP is connecting scattered small businesses along the value chain to collaborate on growing a sustainable mass timber industry that will bring jobs and housing to East African cities while ensuring sustainable forest management. The project brings a critical solution to East Africa, which has an unhoused population the size of Austria, faces challenges employing young people, and is also undergoing rapid deforestation.

To better understand the forest-to-build model, here is a short video on the 3S Framework, a tool built and disseminated by CSFEP:


Through a unified innovative and comprehensive strategy, the world can reimagine forests, cities, and the intricate interplay between them. Establishing an equilibrium between forests, humanity, and the atmosphere can diminish CO2 levels, offer climate-resilient housing, generate employment, and propel local economies. It can also safeguard forest values (including biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities) and promote mental well-being (via biophilic design). In essence, generating value within forests and ensuring that local communities receive this value can safeguard our forests. 

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