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  • Portal: Increase in forest carbon emissions

    David Broadland
    Slash piles left after clearcut logging in the Klanawa Valley on Vancouver Island. (Photo by TJ Watt)
     
    IN THE FACE OF THE CLIMATE CRISIS, BC’s ministry of forests and the forest industry have been working hand-in-hand on a public relations campaign to make clearcut logging seem climate friendly.
    They know its an uphill slog to sell the biggest emitter of carbon in BC as “climate friendly,” but employees of the ministry depend on continued forest destruction for their jobs, and industry depends on high-volume forest destruction for its profits. For them, the move to conserve forests to mitigate carbon emissions is an existential threat.
    Thus we increasingly hear in BC of new (publicly subsidized) initiatives that are going to make forest destruction even more “climate friendly.” These initiatives take two forms: First, creating “bioenergy” from logging “residue.” And second, developing “mass building” technology that will lock forest carbon into long-lasting buildings.
    This greenwashing of the forest industry is happening around the globe. In the US, forest and climate scientists are speaking out about the forest industry’s attempts to climate-wash itself. Two-hundred forest and climate scientists recently wrote the following letter to the US congress:
    “AS FOREST AND CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENTISTS AND EXPERTS, we are writing to urge you to oppose legislative proposals that would promote logging and wood consumption, ostensibly as a natural climate change solution, based on claims that these represent an effective carbon storage approach, or claims that biomass logging, and incinerating trees for energy, represents renewable, carbon-neutral energy. 
    We find no scientific evidence to support increased logging to store more carbon in wood products, such as dimensional lumber or cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall buildings, as a natural climate solution. The growing consensus of scientific findings is that, to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we must not only move beyond fossil fuel consumption but must also substantially increase protection of our native forests in order to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere and store more, not less, carbon in our forests (Depro et al. 2008, Harris et al. 2016, Woodwell 2016, Erb et al. 2018, IPCC 2018, Law et al. 2018, Harmon 2019, Moomaw et al. 2019).
     Furthermore, the scientific evidence does not support the burning of wood in place of fossil fuels as a climate solution. Current science finds that burning trees for energy produces even more CO2 than burning coal, for equal electricity produced (Sterman et al. 2018), and the considerable accumulated carbon debt from the delay in growing a replacement forest is not made up by planting trees or wood substitution (noted below). We need to increase growing forests to more rapidly close the gap between emissions and removal of CO2 by forests, while we simultaneously lower emissions from our energy, industrial and agricultural sectors.
     In your deliberations on this serious climate change issue, we encourage you to consider the following:
    The logging and wood products industries suggest that most of the carbon in trees that are logged and removed from forests will simply be stored in CLT and other wood products for buildings instead of being stored in forest ecosystems. However, this is clearly incorrect. Up to 40 percent of the harvested material does not become forest products and is burned or decomposes quickly, and a majority of manufacturing waste is burned for heat. One study found that 65 percent of the carbon from Oregon forests logged over the past 115 years remains in the atmosphere, and just 19 percent is stored in long-lived products. The remainder is in landfills (Hudiburg et al. 2019).
    Logging in U.S. forests emits 617 million tons of CO2 annually (Harris et al. 2016). Further, logging involves transportation of trucks and machinery across long distances between the forest and the mill. For every ton of carbon emitted from logging, an additional 17.2 percent (106 million tons of CO2) is emitted from fossil fuel consumption to support transportation, extraction, and processing of wood (Ingerson 2007). In fact, the annual CO2 emissions from logging in U.S. forests are comparable to yearly U.S. emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined. The cumulative climate change impact of logging in the U.S. is even higher, since logging causes substantial reductions in carbon sequestration and storage potential in forests due to soil compaction and nutrient removal, and these combined impacts can often reduce forest carbon storage potential by 30 percent or more (e.g., Elliott et al. 1996, Walmsley et al. 2009).
     The wood products industry claims that substituting wood for concrete and steel reduces the overall carbon footprint of buildings. However, this claim has been refuted by more recent analyses that reveal forest industries have been using unrealistic and erroneous assumptions in their models, overestimating the long-term mitigation benefits of substitution by 2- to 100-fold (Law et al. 2018, Harmon 2019). The climate impact of wood is even worse if the reduced forest carbon sequestration and storage caused by nutrient loss and soil compaction from logging is included, as discussed above. 
    In countless public communications, and at numerous Congressional hearings, industry representatives have advocated for increased logging in the context of reducing wildland fire and related emissions. While small-tree thinning can reduce fire intensity when coupled with burning of slash debris (e.g., Perry et al. 2004, Strom and Fulé 2007) under very limited conditions, recent evidence shows intensive forest management characterized by young trees and homogenized fuels burn at higher severity (Zald & Dunn 2018). Further, the extremely low probability (less than 1 percent, Schoennagel et al. 2017) of thinned sites encountering a fire where thinning has occurred limits the effectiveness of such activities to forested areas near homes. Troublingly, to make thinning operations economically attractive to logging companies, commercial logging of larger, more fire-resistant trees often occurs across large areas.
     Importantly, mechanical thinning results in a substantial net loss of forest carbon storage, and a net increase in carbon emissions that can substantially exceed those of wildfire emissions (Hudiburg et al. 2013, Campbell et al. 2012). Reduced forest protections and increased logging tend to make wildland fires burn more intensely (Bradley et al. 2016). This can also occur with commercial thinning, where mature trees are removed (Cruz et al. 2008, Cruz et al. 2014). As an example, logging in U.S. forests emits 10 times more carbon than fire and native insects combined (Harris et al. 2016). And, unlike logging, fire cycles nutrients and helps increase new forest growth.”
     
    COUNTERING GOVERNMENT AND INDUSTRY MISINFORMATION about these issues is critical. Both bodies have immense resources at their disposal to develop and perpetuate these myths. A properly informed public is an essential need that must be met in order to fight climate change and use forest conservation as the best form of natural mitigation. Through the resources page (see link below), we intend to provide the latest insights from BC and around the globe to develop public knowledge on this critical issue.  You can help increase the level of public knowledge by adding links in the forum to resources that you found helpful in understanding these issues.

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