OSU Research Confirms that Big Timber is Oregon’s Leading Source of GHG Emissions

A new study by researchers based at Oregon State University and the University of Idaho corroborates Center for Sustainable Economy’s 2015 and 2017 research demonstrating that logging is by far the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and that changes in greenhouse gas accounting rules are urgently needed to ensure that the climate impacts of logging are accurately reported. Both the new OSU study and CSE’s 2017 research estimate annual logging-related emissions to have averaged over 33 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent per year (Mmt CO2-e/yr) since 2000. This makes logging by far the largest source of emissions in the state, far larger than the 23 Mmt CO2-e/yr attributed to transportation – the leading source presently accounted for by the Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC) and the State’s Department of Energy.

Logging related emissions are not counted in the state’s annual inventory of greenhouse gases because the OGWC relies on a methodology that was “written by loggers for loggers” according to non-governmental organizations monitoring international meetings that birthed the accounting rules almost two decades ago. Rather than disclosing logging related emissions, these rules mask the damage by burying the information needed to isolate logging emissions within broad calculations of changes in carbon stocks on forestlands of all types and all ownership categories. The emphasis of the adopted rules is on  “carbon flux,” which is merely a measure of the ins and outs of carbon on the landscape during any given period. The assumption is that if the ins and outs are roughly balanced – something that can be achieved by regularly mowing a lawn, for example – then there is nothing to worry about and the forest sector as a whole is considered carbon neutral.

But regardless of carbon flux across the landscape, logging-related emissions are substantial and must be part of annual emissions reporting so that appropriate policy interventions can be designed to ramp such emissions down on par with other sectors being considered for regulation. As noted in the OSU study, “transparent quantification of emissions from the wood product process can ensure realistic reductions in forest sector emissions.”

The level of agreement between the two studies was somewhat remarkable considering that both used the same basic data sets but applied two very different methodologies to that data. The OSU study calculated emissions associated with burning wood for fuel, the manufacturing process, and the net decay of wood products after taking into account the potential carbon savings associated with making these products with wood rather than more carbon intensive substitutes like concrete or steel. The CSE study took into account wood products decay, emissions associated with the decay and combustion of logging slash, and the loss of sequestration associated with clearcutting. Despite the different methods, having two studies pointing to the same level of emissions should be worrisome to those who insist on leaving Big Timber out of Oregon’s climate agenda.

The study also highlights four practices that have high potential for significant emissions reduction and increased sequestration including afforestation, reforestation, long rotations and protection for existing high-density carbon stocks. Each of these practices was also highlighted in the 2017 CSE report as an example of climate smart forestry alternatives to short rotation clearcutting and industrial tree plantations. CSE also advocates for thinning of dense tree plantations on state and private lands to expedite their development into climate resilient late successional and old growth forests and other techniques to log commercially valuable timber but leave a healthy forest behind. In contrast with highly mechanized logging of industrial tree plantations, such climate smart practices are labor intensive. Having a skilled workforce in the woods with this kind of know-how would help make Oregon a global center for climate smart practices and produce forestry jobs in communities that now suffer the boom and bust cycles of unsustainable logging. With so many workable alternatives on the table at a time when humanity needs fast action on climate enacting legislation to make these practices the norm and not the exception is more urgent than ever.

The OSU study represents a milestone in CSE’s efforts and those of its partners over the past three years to convince climate policy makers to fold the timber industry into the state’s climate agenda. Governor Brown, legislative leaders, and the OGWC itself have all resisted various options for doing so, including a system of forest carbon taxes that will raise badly needed funding for investment in climate smart practices or capping the timber industry on par with other sectors in the cap-and-invest legislation expected to be reintroduced during the 2019 legislative session.

Other options include legislation requiring long term climate resiliency plans for the largest landowners that commit these owners to long term targets for rebuilding forest carbon stocks on the land toward natural levels and to stop managing so much of the land base as monoculture tree plantations cut on increasingly short rotations. If managed sustainably, Pacific Northwest forests can capture and store more carbon per hectare than almost any other ecosystem on earth. But tragically, these carbon stocks have been severely depleted by industrial scale clearcutting and now exist at a mere fraction of nature’s baseline. For example, carbon densities in some of Oregon’s remaining old growth has been shown to exceed 1,200 metric tons per hectare, while plantations forests now store less than 400 metric tons per hectare.

Enacting legislation to require corporate owners to develop and adhere to long-term climate resiliency plans can be a vehicle for reversing this situation and restoring a landscape that is now more susceptible to fires, insects, disease, water shortages, floods, landslides and heat stress than one dominated by the complex, natural forests that nature built over tens of thousands of years. With so much anti-science sentiment in Trump’s America it is incumbent on Oregon decision makers to embrace the science firmly and respond to the challenge of transforming Oregon’s timber industry from a major climate threat to one of its most promising climate solutions.

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2 thoughts on “OSU Research Confirms that Big Timber is Oregon’s Leading Source of GHG Emissions

  1. Congratulations to the researchers at OSU and the University of Idaho for their efforts!!

    Thank you for this important article!

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