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Wood Use Mitigates Climate Change

A recent report in the Journal of Forestry provides new insight into the benefits provided by forests, and commodities made from forest products, and confirms that using wood for energy and consumer products has long-term benefits for the environment.

"This work should help policymakers reconsider the critical impact forests have on our daily lives and the potential they have to solve problems that confront our nation," said Robert Malmsheimer, chair of the task force that wrote the report and a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, N.Y. "We believe our science-based findings should lead toward positive reforms that encourage investment in this vital renewable resource."

According to the task force, U.S. environmental and energy policies need to be linked and based on four premises steeped in science:

  • Sustainably managed forests can provide carbon storage and substitution benefits while delivering a range of environmental and social benefits, such as timber and biomass resources, clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
  • Energy produced from forest biomass returns carbon to the atmosphere that plants absorbed in the relatively recent past; it essentially results in no net release of carbon as long as overall forest inventories are stable or increasing (as is the case with forests in the United States).
  • Forest products used in place of energy-intensive materials, such as metals, concrete, and plastic reduce carbon emissions because they require less fossil fuel–based energy to produce; store carbon for a length of time based on the product’s use; and provide biomass residuals, such as waste wood, that can be substituted for fossil fuels to produce energy.
  • Fossil fuel-produced energy releases carbon into the atmosphere that has resided in the Earth for millions of years; forest biomass-based energy uses far less of the carbon stored in the Earth, thereby reducing the flow of fossil fuel-based carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

Malmsheimer, a professor of forest policy and law in ESF’s Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management, called the report an assessment of “the current state of the science” regarding forest management and carbon production.

“Quite frankly, before the Industrial Revolution, when we started using the carbon that had been sequestered in the Earth to produce energy, we didn’t have a climate change problem because atmospheric carbon levels were relatively stable,” he said.

The report’s most important point, he said, is this: “Using forest products means we’re mostly recirculating carbon that has already existed in the atmosphere. It was sequestered by trees and when we burn the wood for energy, we’re releasing it again. Or if we produce wood products, we’re continuing to sequester it. But if you produce something out of plastic or concrete or metal you need to use more Earth-based fossil fuel to produce it, and that releases all that additional carbon into the atmosphere.”

SAF Executive Vice President Michael Goergen said the report provides important policy recommendations that will encourage forest management to maximize the carbon and energy benefits forests and forest products provide, while simultaneously sustaining ecosystem health and traditional forest uses.

“It demonstrates why the United States must invest in its forest resources and how their management can have important positive impacts on carbon in the atmosphere while producing renewable energy and other benefits, including energy independence,” Goergen said.

The report was published as a special issue of the October/November Journal of Forestry.

Also contributing to the study were James Bowyer of the University of Minnesota, Jeremy Fried and Edmund Gee of the USDA Forest Service, Robert Izlar of the University of Georgia, Reid Miner of the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Ian Munn of Mississippi State University, Elaine Oneil of the University of Washington and William Stewart of the University of California at Berkeley.

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