Wood Products Expansion Will Not Stave Off Climate Change, Report Concludes

May 5, 2009

CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT — As policymakers weigh their options for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, they hope to find solutions that allow us to have our cake and eat it too. Manufacturing renewable energy equipment or retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, for instance, can provide new green jobs while they reduce our use of fossil fuels. Some hold out hope that long-term storage of carbon in wood products such as furniture and home-building materials can be such a win-win solution. The notion is intuitively appealing – use the forest as a biological “pump” that removes carbon dioxide from the air, then move the carbon offsite and store it in houses and eventually landfills while new trees take the place of the harvested ones. A new report from Wilderness Society resource economist Ann Ingerson highlights some of the obstacles to this approach.

Ingerson’s report, Wood Products and Carbon Storage: Can Increased Production Help Solve the Climate Crisis?, examines the greenhouse gas impacts of wood products and wood biomass fuels throughout their life-cycles. The report provides tentative answers to two important questions. First, what are the overall greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of harvesting trees and converting them to wood products or burning them for fuel? Second, should climate policies encourage increasing timber harvest and wood products production to help reduce GHG emissions? Her conclusion: when the entire life-cycle of these products is taken into account, it becomes clear that an increased use of wood fuels and lumber will have very little net effect on climate change. In fact, the impact is as likely to be negative as positive. “If you’re looking to store carbon,” says Ingerson, “the very best way to do it is to keep forests as forests, and then keep those forests consistently growing trees, year-in and year-out.” Careful harvesting can support this goal for private lands, but there is ultimately a trade-off between intensity of harvest and the total amount of carbon stored.

Regardless of whether the greenhouse gas impacts of wood products and wood fuels are positive or negative, the debate only serves as a distraction, Ingerson notes. The real challenge is to transform an economy based on centuries of inexpensive fossil energy into one that can operate on a truly sustainable, renewable basis. Wood products from well-managed forests can help if they replace materials that use even more fossil fuels, but not if they only support greater consumption. The wood products industry and wood consumers can also contribute by increasing processing efficiency, reducing energy use, extending product life, reusing and recycling wood materials, and promoting wood energy that is clean, efficient, and based on sound forest practices.

Founded in 1935, The Wilderness Society is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. , whose mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. Our effectiveness stems not only from our passion for protecting America’s most special places, but also from the sound scientific research that underpins every aspect of our work.