Well managed forests are key to a low carbon future

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 03/21/2017

In countries such as Canada and the U.S., continually improving sustainable forest management practices will play a key role in mitigating climate change and ensuring a long-term wood supply.

March 21st is International Day of Forests and this year’s theme is Forests and Energy.

Climate change, caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere is a key challenge due to changes in global temperatures and precipitation patterns that affect regions and countries around the world.

There is growing awareness of the potential for a wider use of the forest industry to store carbon and lower GHG emissions.  This is due to the recent 2015 Paris Agreement that recognizes the mitigation potential of forests to meet the challenges of climate change. For countries covered by the Kyoto protocol, GHG emission accounting for forest management has also become mandatory and recent changes in IPCC guidelines allows for accounting of carbon storage in harvested wood products.

"Forestry for a low-carbon future: Integrating forests and wood products in climate change strategies" published by the FAO in 2016 describes the valuable role that forests and harvested wood products can play in storing carbon and reducing CO2 emissions in both developed and developing countries. The report suggests that “a virtuous cycle can be enacted” since growth of sustainably managed forests increases removals of carbon from the atmosphere while augmenting the supply of wood products that can replace more carbon-intense products.

Key opportunities for climate change mitigation include: wood energy, wood-based building materials, reduced deforestation and improved forest management practices.

The FAO report estimates that over half of all wood produced in the world is used for energy each year. While much of this use is in developing countries for cooking and boiling water, 80.6 million people in Europe and 7.9 million people in North America use wood as their main source of heating. The use of renewable wood resources for energy is an opportunity for mitigation as they can replace fossil fuels and reduce GHG emissions.

The use of co-generation, or combined heat and power (CHP) facilities, as used in the pulp and paper industry, is cited as a great example of effective use of wood energy.  CHP recovers waste heat from electricity production and uses it in other parts of the facility. Overall system efficiency is very high, ranging from 70 to 85%, contributing to significant GHG emission reductions.

When it comes to the use of wood biomass and CHP, the North American forest products industry has a great story to tell.  In 2012, 96% of the electricity generated by the U.S. forest products industry was through CHP.  On average, about 66% of the energy used at AF&PA member pulp and paper mills is generated from carbon-neutral biomass.  Since 1990, U.S. pulp and paper mill purchased energy (from fossil fuels) use per ton of production has been reduced by 25%.  The Canadian forest industry’s substantial cut in fossil fuel use between 2000 and 2012 has also helped reduce direct emissions by 56% and total energy use by 30%.  In Canada, 98% of wood residue is now being used for either energy generation or composting.   The above facts and sources can be found on our Two Sides Fact Sheet:

Much of the energy used for papermaking is renewable and the carbon footprint is surprisingly low.

Expanding global forest and tree cover is another mitigation opportunity although as the FAO report points out carbon taxes and credits or emissions trading systems need to value the carbon stored in forests in order for such expansion to occur. Public and private landowners, for example, are more likely to invest in tree plantations only if they perceive a return on their investment that is better than alternative land uses. Maintaining a healthy demand for forest products also increases the likelihood that forest area expands rather than contracts.

Sustainable forest management is necessary to realize all these mitigation opportunities. Practices which maintain as high an average stand volume as possible for as long as possible; reduce potential risks from pests, disease, fire and extreme weather; and maintain biodiversity lead to better carbon sequestration in the forest ecosystem.

The FAO report can be found at the following link:  Forestry for a low-carbon future: Integrating forests and wood products in climate change strategies