Wood – One Response to Carbon Sequestration

Infographic: Putting Forests to Work

Infographic: Putting Forests to Work

One has to watch assertions. Even though well-intentioned, they can sometimes be misleading. So, it was that I questioned one such assertion regarding a particular detail in what was overall a good presentation. The assertion was “Products made of wood currently capture 70 million metric tons of CO2 from the air annually.” I wanted to know how that was possible and said via email “An assertion in your graphic seems not entirely ‘possible’ to me, could you please explain, elaborate or clarify ?” I noted that we are “forest-friendly” saying – “We steward a 500 acre forest in Missouri.” and that “I understand that using wood would keep the tree from potentially decaying and thereby releasing the carbon it has sequestered.”

I won’t say that the response was entirely informative but I was referred to a couple of links –

You can find more details about forests and climate on our website: https://www.forestfoundation.org/forests-and-climate-change

And specifically read about the statistic you mention here (recommendation #2): https://www.forestfoundation.org/read-our-recommendations. The calculations have been verified by several different folks, including U.S. Forest Service researchers.

Thanks so much for your interest.

So, I thought I would explore around this for my blog today. What was confusing to me was that it seemed to be saying “dead” wood in the form of “products” could actually pull CO2 from the air. I do question that. So, let us take a look at the link that she suggested would explain that. Here is what Recommendation # 2 says specifically –

“2) Promote Forest Products:

Forest products, such as lumber, store carbon throughout their lifecycle. Nationwide, forest products already store 71 million metric tons of CO2 annually. There are many opportunities to strengthen markets for forest products. Measures such as these could reduce emissions by an additional 21.1 million metric tons of CO2, or 0.3% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to emissions from 5.5 coal plants in one year.”

So, when they say “capture”, they actually mean “store”. Not that it continues to pull carbon from the air after it becomes a product. Now, I do not intend what I have said to be interpreted to mean that I think the American Forest Foundation had any intention of misleading anyone. Still “capture” “from the air annually” could easily be interpreted by the casual reader as meaning that their purchase of a wood product – that the house, table, bowl and chair are actively removing CO2 from the air.

Damage in Missouri from 2009 Derecho

Damage in Missouri form 2009 Derecho

Still, I do know that we once thought that we would never cut a tree. Then, along came the extreme storms where our big trees were taken down 3 or 4 years in a 5 year period. A tree decaying naturally, while adding to the soil which is not in itself a bad thing, is also releasing it’s carbon. So, selectively logging our forest, in a careful un-even aged management by a state forester’s selections, does provide wood for products and prevents some trees that might be lost in storms from releasing their carbon (removed as CO2 from the air). And we have also performed some salvage logging after a storm for the very same reason.

Recommendation # 1 suggested “Provide Sound Data and Science: Accurate, up-to-date information is needed to manage forests for the greatest carbon benefit, understand the conditions and trends of forest carbon stocks, and to address climate-driven stressors on forests. Supporting existing inventory efforts, research and applied science partnerships to understand and address threats …”

About a decade ago, we discovered “mystery trees” at the edge of our property. To be honest, at first the only explanation we could come up with was a bit disturbing. Someone was going deep into our forest to perform disturbing rituals or to hide evidence from some criminal activity. Nothing much happened there for a decade but periodically, we would go back to see if there had been any change. This year, we saw that the odd marks that had been put on the trees had been “refreshed” and felt invaded and threatened all over again.

FIA Tree Marking

To rescue our sense of security, came an answer from our Missouri Dept of Conservation state forester. She said – “Your mystery is actually a forestry thing.

There is a program (and has been since around the 1960’s) called the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) project, where random plots were chosen throughout Missouri’s forests (regardless of landowner) to be surveyed. Permanent plots were established and are re-measured every 5-7 years. If the trees are cut, then that is recorded also. This program is a way of establishing the growth or decline of Missouri’s forests.

I worked on this crew when I was just out of college. They are supposed to contact the landowners before accessing the property, but sometimes if they cannot get hold of them, they have been known to slip in and re-measure old plots. This project is run by the US Forest Service (research branch), and I believe they are still based out of the Salem office.

The layout of the plot is a central circle usually marked at the center with re-bar. Then there are three other circles around the main circle ( I forget how far away). There are witness trees marked to help locate the main plot center.

Nothing sinister, but they definitely should have talked to the landowner at some point.”

Living Forest Components

Living Forest Components

We did some additional research and while never definitely confirming our plot was part of that, we were told by a USDA Forest Service employee that “From your description of the marking this does sound like a Forest Inventory Research plot.” That did reassure us and we don’t mind being a “research” subject. They even have a Forest Carbon Estimation based upon their work. They indicate there that “US forests and associated industries currently provide the largest annual reduction of CO2 emissions of any land use in our Nation. Reliable estimates of this ecosystem service is essential to our society.”

EPA Forest Wood Sequestration

EPA Forest Wood Sequestration

Regarding the chart above, TreeHugger author John Laumer shared a few thoughts – “The total US forest-carbon pie can not increase significantly, inside a decade, based on organic growth. Some uses of one or more slices can reduce the total carbon stored in a few years, however. Individual slices can be increased to make up for decreases elsewhere.I begin with above-ground biomass in the USA, and brainstorm from the graphic, clockwise, discussing the millions of metric tons carbon in storage and possible tradeoffs.”

It is nice to know that “Once you put wood in any form into a landfill (64 MMT/7%), the carbon stays there for decades, maybe centuries. Recycling and re-use keeps the carbon roughly the same: stored. Conversely, diverting wood from the landfill to a biomass burner, whether for building heat of electricity generation or both, pulls that carbon out of the storage pie.”

Laumer also suggests – “You can make wood a more common building material – LEED buildings often do – diverting carbon from the above ground slice and into the wood products slice, keeping the carbon locked up (37 MMT/4%). If wood is imported, above ground slice stays as it is. If harvested locally it goes down. Only way to keep the pie size constant in global terms is to require replanting regardless of source.”

I really like the point he makes, “Dead wood is 37 MMT/4% and likely rising rapidly in the USA due to the pine bark beetle and other invasive Asian insects. Given our metaphorical habit of ‘getting rid of the dead wood’ I suspect there will always proposals afoot to log dead wood, either for product manufacture or for burning. Arguably, manufacturing is the better option as it keeps carbon in storage longer; but, to the extent that living disease-resistant trees are planted to replace the dead wood, use of dead wood as biofuel or as ethanol feedstock displaces fossil fuels and is thus a second place ‘good’.”

And I especially appreciate “balance”, which the author brings in at the end of his piece – “If a politician favors logging to bring jobs and expand the tax base, he’ll cite a study that only measures above ground living biomass. If an environmental interest favors wilderness preservation, they’ll add up all the slices they can, which is objectively sensible, but which leads observers wondering if anyone is ‘right’.”

Forest Light

I do love trees, no doubt about it. However, I also believe that humans are part of what is “natural” to this planet and that we are here to be thinking entities. We can be those thinking entities in ways that benefit the planet. We once believed in a hands-off forest. We changed our minds and decided to be stewards participating in a considered forest management process. That isn’t always the easiest path, when one loves trees. Yet, it is my hope, that a healthy vital forest is another way of expressing my love for the trees. And yep, I hug a tree fairly often. It feels awesome.

~ Information Resources

American Forest Foundation – “Infographic: Putting Forests to Work” – https://www.forestfoundation.org/infographic-putting-forests-to-work#.U7CAdrdOXL8

American Forest Foundation – Recommendation # 2 – https://www.forestfoundation.org/read-our-recommendations

USDA Forest Service – “Forest Inventory and Analysis National Program” – http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/

USDA Forest Service – “Forest Carbon Estimation” – http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/Forest%20Carbon/default.asp

“Forest Carbon Management: Let’s Brainstorm The Trade-offs” by John Laumer posted at TreeHugger.com on Dec 15, 2009 – http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/forest-carbon-management-lets-brainstorm-the-trade-offs.html


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer



4 Comments on “Wood – One Response to Carbon Sequestration”

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