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

  1. Thank you, we’re speaking on climate in Ashland Oregon tomorrow. Bullet points would help, in car now.

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  2. It’s ridiculous to try to separate the carbon load on uses and industrial process …. tax carbon as its taken out of the ground ! That is the only carbon that should count , because it can’t be put back !

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  3. How much of the original 1200 mt/hct is still sequestered in buildings and other structures around the world. It doesn’t automatically melt into methane and CO2 when it is harvested and relocated. That 1200 mt/hct was the result of at least several hundred years of growing where as the 400 mt/hct is going to happen every 40 to 50 years, be harvested and sequestered in long term form as lumber, plywood, paper etc, and then another 400 mt/hct captured on the same site, in the next 40 to 50 years. So if we capture 400 mt/hct every 50 years, then we will have captured 4000 mt/hct in the same 500 years that it took the old growth forest to capture 1200. So we will be much better off. Obviously these studies started and ended with a world view that disapproves of the wise use of the resources which we have. Any rational scientist either knows or can figure out that the rate of carbon sequestration that is occurring in an old growth forest is at best negative, regardless of the fact that there is a lot there. It is going backwards, whereas a young vigourously growing forest is capturing carbon at a very high rate and needs to be maintained in that state to continue to do so. Harvesting and utilizing the wood, and reestablishing a new forest in it’s place is the way to accomplish this.

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  4. This article does not report the amount of carbon sequestered in wood products, or their expected life, prior to decay or burning or other return to atmospheric carbon. It also presumes that the carbon utilized in wood was CO2, and not soil related stoichiometry. Its language is also loaded in sadly unscientific terms, betraying it as an ideological screed, and not real science. This is too bad for the authors.

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    • SGK, thanks for that reality check. However, it ignores the centuries of degradation & deterioration of forest top soil & habitat + the as yet unfinished harms of all the associated poisons. It also ignores the fact that growing or harvesting mushrooms + selective lower-impact logging might have been an immeasurably better & less destructive money-maker–as compared with subsidized wholesale of cheap lumber, plywood, etc., for the benefit of Japan, China & ecocidal stockholders & ‘forestry managers’ over the last 100 years. Now, I know those assertions are not based on hard numbers from deep & extensive research, but quibbling about the depth & severity of multiple mortal wounds–while the patient is dying on the ER gurney–seems the worst possible response to the reality of the present state of the biosphere, etc.

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

    Thank you for this important article!

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  6. This implications posed by article are not good. The emissions from heavy equipment and vehicles during Forest management projects, Timber harvests, and transportation logs to Mills and wood processing facilities, is only one part of the equation. A large part of the wood fiber removed from the forests is basically sequestered carbon that has already been removed from the atmosphere, and will continue to be sequestered so long as the harvested wood fiber is used in construction and other applications. If I any particular track of Timberland has stopped growing vigorously, removing those trees, and allowing new trees to regenerate, will sequester far more carbon out of the atmosphere in the future. The suggestion that this and the “calculations of changes in carbon stocks on forestlands” should not be factored into the equation is obtuse and disingenuous the best, and academically dishonest and politically abusive at worst.

    Moreover, forestry activities that help forests maintain their fire resilience have innumerable positive consequences. Any one of the large forest fires that have burned through Oregon forests over the past few decades have releases vastly more carbon and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere then all internal combustion engines from logging activity. In fact, I would estimate that the 100,000-acre Canyon Creek complex fire that burned in 2016 alone emitted more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than ALL vehicle emissions in the state of Oregon for two or three years.

    It is laughably absurd and academically dishonest when studies like this either failed to consider or absolutely refuse to consider the positive aspects of carbon sequestration through active Forest management.

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    • Good points, yet they miss the core & root of the problems associated with centuries of careless rape & plunder of forest habitats, soils & watersheds for the sake of short-term profits & ‘cheap’ subsidized lumber for export & wholesale to the mass-market, for the financial benefit of a few large corporations & their cohorts in Congress, etc., and the ‘forestry management’ bureaucracy. The logging jobs? Loggers would be better off raising/harvesting & selling valuable medicinal mushrooms and smoked salmon in a virgin old-growth forest habitat. Sure, I know, that’s totally unrealistic for several reasons, mainly because that scenario is now absolutely impossible, at least for the next few millennia. Also, at our current rate ecocidal inaction, toxic pollution & GHG* release, we may not be here that long.

      * Nitrous oxide is 298 times more potent than CO2, and its release due to arctic & antarctic meltdown is accelerating, ever faster. Atmospheric CH4 (methane) is nearly 100 times more potent than CO2 in its first few years, about 84x more potent at 20 years & nearly 25x more potent at 100 years. So, the best assessments of the best new data show all the multiple interacting geothermal feedback loops forcing increasing CO2 release far beyond the current 416+ ppm level. It’s already past the high of 1 to 3 million years ago, when Antarctica was ice-free and there were no glaciers. So, all we can do now is try to slow the warming & melting as we start moving coastal & low-lying riverside nuke stockpiles of fuel & waste, and all the other urban industrial infrastructure & people worth saving. Yes, of course, we can keep choosing ecocidal ignorance & obliviousness and enjoy our final horror-show dystopia. It’s our choice: either ecocidal dystopia ASAP or our best possible ecotopian alternative ASAP.

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