Forest Carbon Perspectives

Our Matthew Koehler is a coauthor on an essay on the Missoula Current: “Logging drives carbon emissions from U.S. forests, escalates climate crisis,” by Danna Smith, Chad Hanson and Matthew Koehler, October 2, 2019:

“To effectively mitigate climate change, we must stop burning carbon for fuel and greatly increase forest protection. If we take ambitious steps to protect vastly more of our forests from industrial logging, we can avoid emissions while also actively absorbing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and storing it back on land in the forest where it belongs.”

This is a carbon-central viewpoint that we’ve debated here over the years.

A new publication from two professors, Paul Catanzaro, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Anthony D’Amato, University of Vermont, offers a balanced perspective: “Forest Carbon: An essential natural solution to climate change.”

“To understand the full role of forests in the global carbon cycle, it is critical to consider both the amount of carbon stored in forest products and the amount of carbon that is saved when wood is used in place of more carbon-intensive materials, such as steel and concrete (i.e., substitution).”

15 thoughts on “Forest Carbon Perspectives”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Steve.

    Here’s another recent opinion piece on this topic, which was written by economist Ernie Niemi, president of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene and co-director of the Forest Carbon Coalition.

    Timber is Oregon’s coal. It’s the state’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, and it epitomizes the obscene, money-hungry politics pushing the world toward climate catastrophe. Brown grants tax breaks and other favors to the globalized corporations that dominate the industry. Corporate managers log as much as they can as fast as they can, and corporate owners bank about $1 billion per year. In other words: We have no leadership for the climate crisis. The rich get richer by making the crisis worse. The rest of us bear the costs from climate catastrophes, and young people despair as they see their dreams stolen away.

    This insanity has to stop. The science is clear: Reducing logging is the best thing Oregon can do now to reduce climate catastrophes. This will decrease logging-related emissions that go into the atmosphere and make the climate crisis worse.

    Most of the necessary reductions in logging must occur on the 6 million acres owned by Wall Street and other big investors. It will take strong leadership to bring about the needed changes. Let trees grow bigger before they are cut, employ workers skilled in managing forests for carbon and more. I urge Brown to show us she can do the job, starting now.

    In addition, we must stop logging on state-owned forests. Fortunately, the time is ripe for doing so, because the Board of Forestry is developing a new plan for managing these lands. Unfortunately, the board apparently hopes this process will find a happy place where it can maximize logging revenues without inducing too much public outrage. Not gonna happen. Logging on these lands is a big-time loser. The climate costs from logging-related carbon dioxide emissions exceed the logging revenue by at least 40-to-1, and perhaps by more than 80-to-1.

  2. This is also generally related to Niemi’s piece:

    According to Oregonian reporter Rob Davis: Oregon’s Secretary of State rejected three initiatives to tighten the state’s forestry laws on unprecedented grounds. Its top two officials have taken $55K from timber interests. Full article here.

    “The three ballot measures — Initiative Petitions 35, 36 and 37 — are substantially the same. They call for tightening the state’s aerial spraying laws, which today offer some of the West Coast’s weakest protections for people and fish. They call for more logging restrictions in steep, landslide-prone areas. They would prohibit conflicts of interest for state forestry board appointees, who today can set policies that benefit their own companies.”

      • FWIW: I never stated or implied at all that that patch of land was public lands, in fact, I believe that by posting the actual article and the actual photo caption it’s pretty crystal clear that it wasn’t USFS land.

      • NY Times op-ed:

        “Let’s Fill Our Cities With Taller, Wooden Buildings”
        Trees are some of our best allies in solving the climate crisis.

        By Frank Lowenstein, Brian Donahue and David Foster

        Mr. Lowenstein is the chief conservation officer of the New England Forestry Foundation. Mr. Donahue is an associate professor at Brandeis University. Mr. Foster is the director of the Harvard Forest and the president of the Highstead Foundation.

        “The energy embodied in the materials for new buildings around the world — mostly steel and concrete — accounts for 11 percent of global carbon emissions. Typically, coal is used to heat these materials to temperatures over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit in the manufacturing process.

        “Wood, in contrast, is forged from sunlight. A study by scientists from Yale University and the University of Washington showed that expanding wood construction while limiting global harvesting to no more than the annual growth could produce a combination of emissions reduction and carbon sequestration equivalent to eliminating construction emissions altogether. This could take a big bite out of the carbon problem, roughly equivalent to the present contribution from all types of renewable energy.”


        • This seems to me that it is essentially some folks saying “don’t do it because it hurts the environment” while other see that there is a demand (buildings) that people will fill one way or the other possibly with more impactful building material.

          Someone will step in to fill the supply needs. It might as well be us. Otherwise we’re just discussing specific forest practices (e.g. herbicide spraying) and then we could open the dialogue on alternatives.

          It’s kind of funny to me that when tariffs were put into place,
          There was (appropriate) concern about housing affordability. Not spraying herbicides could also lead to increased costs for building products which are ultimately passed on to the consumer.
          If it were up to me, people whose environmental leaning is to say “do it somewhere else” should be able to analyze the costs and benefits of doing it somewhere else, and also of any possible substitutions. Historically demand doesn’t decline, in fact it tends to increase with population.

          • That’s a good point, Sharon. “Leakage” — lowering harvests in State A will increase harvests in State B — is often assumed to be equal in both places. But that could go either way: for example, forest productivity might be higher or lower in B.

    • UPDATE: “Backers of spurned ballot measures to tighten Oregon’s forestry laws sued Monday, saying Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno broke with legal precedent and based her rejection on bad advice from political appointees.”

      Full story at:

  3. Timber is not coal. That was a terrible article in my opinion posted straight out of the 1980’s. Ernie Nieme has written many articles over the years and they are all the same, “all logging is bad”.
    I believe there is a direct correlation between the closure of 90% of our coastal federal forests and the increased harvesting on private forests.


    It seems like there should be a scientific/mathematical answer to these questions if we could agree on the priorities and assumptions. The “perspective” of this article focuses on two things that should be important but may be ignored – the urgent need for immediate sequestration and the need to simultaneously address loss of biodiversity (which could be as harmful indirectly as some of the more obvious effects of climate change). And here’s a word not yet used on this blog …

    “The recent 1.5 Degree Warming Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies reforestation and afforestation as important strategies to increase negative emissions, but they face significant challenges: afforestation requires an enormous amount of additional land, and neither strategy can remove sufficient carbon by growing young trees during the critical next decade(s). In contrast, growing existing forests intact to their ecological potential—termed proforestation—is a more effective, immediate, and low-cost approach that could be mobilized across suitable forests of all types.”

    Addressing substitution, “Because inefficient logging practices result in substantial instant carbon release to the atmosphere, and only a small fraction of wood becomes a lasting product, increasing market forces and investments toward wood buildings that have relatively short lifetimes could increase forest extraction rates significantly and become unsustainable (Oliver et al., 2014).”

    • Here is the last section in a paper that offers some numbers on various approaches:

      Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation With Wood and Forests

      By Chadwick Dearing Oliver, Nedal T. Nassar, Bruce R. Lippke & James B.

      Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 2014 AND

      Globally, both enough extra wood can be harvested sustainably and enough infrastructure of buildings and bridges needs to be built to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 14 to 31% and FF [fossil fuel] consumption by 12 to 19% if part of this infrastructure were made of wood. The range is based on the efficiency of wood use (Figure 6b–c). This reduction would require 34 to 100% of the world’s wood growth (Figure 6a), again depending on the efficiency of wood use. Consequently, efficient wood use could make an important but not overwhelming contribution to saving CO2 and FF globally, even if only part of its potential savings were realized. The greatest CO2 and FF savings from wood use are by avoiding the excess FF energy used to make steel and concrete structures (avoidance pathway). Wood products are more efficient than wood energy for CO2 and FF savings; however, up to 37 % of the world’s annual CO2 emissions and 27% of the FF use could be saved if all wood growth not used in construction were used for energy (energy pathway; Figure 6b–c).

      If catastrophic fires do not occur and forest regrowth after harvest is not considered, saving CO2 by not harvesting the forest growth is slightly more efficient than harvesting just for wood energy—but generally less efficient than harvesting for construction products. This efficiency of CO2 storage in unharvested forests also assumes none of the wood blows over or otherwise rots in the forest—an unrealistic assumption in most of the world.

      Not harvesting any of an area’s forests will also not gain maximum biodiversity if all stands grow out of the savanna and open structures (Figure 2 & Table 5). Maximum forest carbon will not create maximum biodiversity since savanna, open, and dense structures sequester less CO2 than understory and complex ones. A forest needs either fortuitous disturbances occurring at the right time and place or it needs appropriate harvesting to maintain all structures. Wood harvested to create the open and savanna structures can be used for construction products and wood energy and to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires—all of which save CO2 and FF. When regrowth after harvest is considered, even wood harvested just for energy (energy pathway) can be more efficient for CO2 sequestration than not harvesting the forest and using FF for energy. By elaborating the sustained yield calculations, it is possible to design dynamic, sustainable landscapes that maintain all structures for habitat, provide wood sustainably at an age that optimizes CO2 savings (mean annual increment, Figure 9A), and makes the forest less susceptible to catastrophic fires. Included in these landscapes could be some forests that are reserved from harvest to provide complex structures (Seymour & Hunter, 1999)—although they could reduce the potential CO2 and FF saved had they been appropriately harvested and utilized.

      Immediately changing to older harvest ages to save more CO2 (Figure 9) could delay all wood harvest where older forests are not present. Such delays could lead to temporary, local timber shortages that might promote more CO2-intensive steel and concrete products. A “transition” period could be instituted to avoid these temporary shortages. On the other hand, the world’s excess wood growth relative to harvest means the extra wood needed while waiting for young forests to grow could probably be obtained quite readily from elsewhere.

      It may be appropriate to adjust carbon sequestration incentives and building codes to reflect the value of wood use in saving CO2 and FF (Ruddell et al., 2007). For example, REDD and other incentives that seek to store CO2 in forests appear to be counterproductive if curtailing harvest meant steel and concrete were used in construction instead, with concomitant high rates of CO2 emissions and FF consumption. A dilemma becomes how to avoid deforestation and degradation while promoting CO2 savings if wood products/wood energy save much CO2. One solution would be to credit landowners for additional CO2 stored in the forest at a landscape level, but give CO2 credits to builders for substituting wood for steel or concrete construction components (Figure 1; mgb Architecture + Design, 2012). It is anticipated that the builder would pass some of the money saved by using wood to the landowner in increased timber prices. The result would be incentives for landowners to grow useful forest products/wood energy, but also to store more carbon within the forest landscape. Such a solution could be further enhanced by only allowing REDD, other forest carbon credits, and/or wood construction carbon incentives where wood is harvested from certified forests, presuming certification ensures that forests are sustained and biodiversity is protected.

  5. Catanzaro & D’Amato accurately conclude that “Taking a passive approach to forest management will likely provide the greatest amount of carbon storage.”

    They stumbled when they assert that ” Though active forest management would temporarily reduce the amount of carbon stored in the forest, it may help prevent an even larger reduction in carbon storage by avoiding losses due to a large-scale disturbance…” This has never been shown. The probability and magnitude of carbon losses from disturbance are far far less than the probability and magnitude of carbon losses from active management, aka logging.

    Law & Harmon (2011) conducted a literature review and concluded …

    Thinning forests to reduce potential carbon losses due to wildfire is in direct conflict with carbon sequestration goals, and, if implemented, would result in a net emission of CO2 to the atmosphere because the amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.

    Law, B. & M.E. Harmon 2011. Forest sector carbon management, measurement and verification, and discussion of policy related to mitigation and adaptation of forests to climate change. Carbon Management 2011 2(1).

    Campbell and Agar (2013) conducted a sensitivity analysis and found robust results indicating that fuel reduction does not increase forest carbon storage.

    … we attempt to remove some of the confusion surrounding this subject by performing a sensitivity analysis wherein long-term, landscape-wide carbon stocks are simulated under a wide range of treatment efficacy, treatment lifespan, fire impacts, forest recovery rates, forest decay rates, and the longevity of wood products. Our results indicate a surprising insensitivity of long-term carbon stocks to both management and biological variables. After 80 years, … a 1600% change in either treatment application rate or efficacy in arresting fire spread resulted in only a 10% change in total system carbon. This insensitivity of long-term carbon stocks is due in part by the infrequency of treatment/wildfire interaction and in part by the controls imposed by maximum forest biomass. None of the fuel treatment simulation scenarios resulted in increased system carbon.

    Campbell, J, Agar, A (2013) Forest wildfire, fuel reduction treatments, and landscape carbon stocks: A sensitivity analysis. Journal of Environmental Management 121 (2013) 124-132

    • “Wildfires a massive threat to California’s progress in cutting greenhouse gases, report says.” — LA Times, October 8, 2019

      From the report: “The 2018 wildfires in California are estimated to have produced more than nine times greater emissions than were reduced across the entire state’s economy between 2016 and 2017—with wildfires contributing more than the commercial, residential or agriculture sectors did in 2017.” — from “2019 California Green Innovation Index,” Next 10, October 8, 2019

      “Wildfires in California in 2018 released the rough equivalent of about 68 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide — about the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced in a year to provide electricity to the state…. The carbon dioxide figure — based on data analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey — is more than 15 percent of all emissions produced by California in a year.” — AP, Dec. 2, 2018

      • From the LA Times article:

        State climate regulators said it was misleading to compare the carbon released by wildfires and the emissions from burning fossil fuels, which they said are two completely different types of pollution. The Air Resources Board tracks wildfire emissions in a separate inventory for ecosystems, soil and other sectors that are not regulated.

        “The carbon stored in wildfires is part of the natural carbon cycle; emissions from fossil fuels are the result of pulling carbon out of the ground that otherwise would not be there, and pumping it into the atmosphere,” said Stanley Young, an Air Resources Board spokesman.

        Young said the state is working on measures both to reduce the severity of wildfires and to ensure forests can store more carbon, “turning to a broad new set of forest management practices that will help with wildlands emissions.”



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