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Forest Carbon and the Role of Wood Products

Published: December 13, 2021 by Editorial Team

On Wednesday, President Biden signed the executive order, “Catalyzing America’s Clean Energy Economy Through Federal Sustainability”. Among the many goals set forth in the order was having a net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045, including a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2032.

The American Wood Council, National Alliance of Forest Owners, and Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association were quick to respond, issuing a joint statement in support of the order. “We applaud the President for harnessing the federal government to lead the way in transforming the built environment to net-zero. The materials used to construct buildings account for 27 percent of total building emissions, according to the United Nations, and lowering the carbon footprint in buildings, construction, and renovations is critical to meeting climate goals. We can significantly cut the carbon footprint of the traditional built environment by expanding wood use and substituting traditional building materials with wood products, including mass timber – leveraging the carbon benefits of our nation’s forests into our buildings, communities, and cities.”

Substituting mass timber and other long lived wood products for carbon intensive building materials like concrete and steel has long been a popular climate mitigation strategy with timber industry advocates. However, there has been some push-back by the environmental community who point out that the way these wood products are sourced still plays a large role in determining their climate benefits. In short-rotation forestry systems, where trees are harvested well before they reach what foresters refer to as the culmination of mean annual increment (CMAI, the fastest growing years), forests are sequestering and storing amounts of carbon far below their full potential. Clear cuts can also be net sources of emissions for years following a harvest, with most forest types needing 10-15 years to start sequestering carbon again. All this means that forestland managed on short rotations run a historical carbon deficit compared to forest allowed to grow to CMAI and beyond.

Increasing the use of wood products in construction can be part of decarbonizing the building sector, but only if those wood products are sourced from forests that are managed to capture their prime carbon sequestering years. We applaud the U.S. government for taking these bold steps to lead in addressing climate change. We hope they will consider the importance of climate smart forest management when sourcing wood products.

News + Resources
Managing Moist Forests of the Pacific Northwest United States for Climate Positive Outcomes
Franklin, J.; Johnson, N.; Johnson, D. Ecological Forest Management; Waveland Press: Long Grove, IL, USA, 2018.
Oliver, C.D.; Nassar, N.T.; Lippke, B.R.; McCarter, J.B. Carbon, fossil fuel, and biodiversity mitigation with wood and forests. J. Sustain. For. 201433, 248–275.