In a recent letter to congressional leadership, dozens of scientists urged policymakers to support legislative proposals recognizing forest management and wood utilization as part of the solution to climate change.
Their research found wood and wood products, when appropriately deployed, can reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment, transportation, and manufacturing sectors, “with significant co-benefits of sustaining rural economic development and maintaining forests as forests.” They also quantified the benefits of wood products to sequestering and holding carbon:
Wood is about 50% carbon by dry weight, so 1 ton of wood holds 1,000 pounds of carbon which is equal to 3,667 pounds of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.
Wood products are sustainable and efficient because the forest sector and its supply chain uses more than 99 percent of every harvested log that enters American sawmills. Further, many of our domestic sawmills use renewable biomass energy (wood waste) rather than fossil fuels to power their facilities. For these reasons, forest management and wood utilization provide net carbon benefits:
Taken together, US forests and wood products remove enough carbon dioxide from the air on a yearly basis to offset about 10-15% of US fossil fuel combustion emissions. Of that total, an average of 13% is in harvested wood products.
However, the scientists noted the lack of active forest management on federal lands, and the resulting catastrophic wildfires and smoke are undermining the ability of our forests to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Our western public (largely federal) lands are suffering from significant insect, disease and wildfire impacts, so much so that wildfire losses reduce the climate mitigation benefit of the forest sector by nearly 3% (EPA 2020) in extreme fire years like 2015, 2017, 2018 (National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)) (and probably 2020 when the statistics come in).
Not only do the carbon, nitrogen and methane emissions from wildfires reduce forest sector climate mitigation benefits, they reduce forest inventories, sometimes for decades. In the near term they also create massive health, safety, and economic impacts in affected communities throughout the west (e.g. California, Oregon, PNW) and create substantial wildlife habitat and water quality degradation.
These are reasons why any meaningful response to climate change must include improving forest management on federal lands:
This year’s wildfire and smoke issues clearly identify a need for changes in federal forest policy to encourage fire risk reduction on fire prone forests.