In the woods

Under normal circumstances, plants and trees in the forest absorb excess carbon dioxide (GHG) from the atmosphere. During natural disasters such as forest fires, or deforestation, carbon that has been stored is released into the atmosphere, contributing to Greenhouse Gas emissions. A recent article in Nature titled “The Carbon Costs of Global Wood Harvests” by the World Research Institute (WRI) states that the yearly wood harvests worldwide are expected to release 3.5 to 4.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. This accounts for over 10% of global annual carbon dioxide emissions and is nearly equivalent to the emissions from deforestation and the conversion of forest areas into farmlands for agriculture and food production.

Conflicting views: Accounting for a gap in emissions from Wood Harvest

Wood harvesting is projected to increase by 54% between 2010 and 2050, resulting in an estimated 5 billion tons of increased emissions in 2050 fueling climate change. The scientific community and governing bodies have overlooked this issue due to faulty carbon accounting. At COP26, many nations pledged to halt and reverse deforestation, acknowledging that logging trees from forests can harm their ability to sequester carbon. It’s important to note that trees have a vital role in the environment as they absorb about one-third of the global carbon dioxide emissions each year. While this is true, many research papers and articles, such as “Forest Ecosystems”, “European Forest Institute,” “Journal of Industrial Ecology – The Case of Switzerland ”, etc., suggest that substituting wood for emission-intensive fossil fuels may lower carbon emissions. However, they fail to disclose the true impact of wood in mitigating climate change.

According to experts Tim Searchinger and Dr Liqing Peng, there have been studies/papers with misleading information regarding the impact of wood harvesting in both tropical and temperate zones. While harvesting wood in tropical areas may contribute to carbon emissions, it does not affect the climate in temperate zones. Countries such as the US, Europe, and China in the Northern Hemisphere view additional wood harvesting as carbon neutral because they report the net effect of new wood harvests against forest regrowth. These countries have cleared much of their forests over the past two centuries, but there has been increased reforestation and carbon sequestration due to global warming. Despite this, new wood harvesting in these countries cannot be considered carbon neutral.

The solution to proper harvest estimation

The paper by WRI identifies important ways to cut these wood harvest emissions. The paper provides more detailed forest harvest estimates using the new ‘global forest harvest model’, the Carbon Harvest Model (CHARM). The impact of harvesting forests on atmospheric carbon levels is determined by comparing the amount of carbon stored in all pools (pools include live vegetation, roots, slash, wood products, and landfills) before and after the wood harvest, to the amount that would have been stored if the forests were left to grow undisturbed. Emissions and removals from the air in a particular year are calculated as the changes in this amount from the previous year. A cost is placed on the net increase of carbon during the decade.

The study concludes that reducing wood usage for energy, selectively harvesting larger tropical trees while preserving smaller ones, and boosting the growth rate of current plantation forests can lower individual emissions.

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