New research shows markets and timing matter when accounting for biogenic carbon

New research shows markets and timing matter when accounting for biogenic carbonThe Society of American Foresters (SAF) has published “Forest Carbon Accounting Considerations in US Bioenergy Policy” in the Journal of Forestry. The article, which was authored by an SAF-sponsored team comprised of some of the US’s leading forest carbon experts, identifies and examines scientific-based insights essential to understanding forest bioenergy and “carbon debts.” Dr. Jim Bowyer of Dovetail Partners served in a consulting and research role on the project.

As noted by Reid Miner, the lead author and chair of the SAF team, the article’s insights, which are built on a comprehensive review of the most current literature, illustrate why quantifying the full spectrum of forest-based activities is critical when accounting for biogenic carbon and carbon dioxide, and why policymakers should consider that:

  • Even while the greenhouse-gas benefits of sustainable forest biomass energy are sometimes delayed, it is well established that these benefits are substantial over the long term.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that peak global temperature is likely to be determined by long-term cumulative CO2 emissions, and that forest-based energy and products help limit cumulative CO2 emissions.
  • An accurate comparison of the carbon impacts of forest biomass energy with those of other energy sources requires the use of consistent timeframes in the comparison.
  • Landowner responses to increased wood demand can have a significant influence on the carbon impacts of forest biomass energy.

The release of this article comes as a number of groups await the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Accounting Framework for Biogenic Carbon Emissions, following a three-year deferral to examine the issue. Dr. Jim Bowyer, Dovetail Partners’ Director of Responsible Materials says, “To this point, much of the published research on carbon implications of forest management and harvesting have focused on short-term effects, while ignoring longer-term benefits. Market responses, moreover, have been almost universally overlooked. This new study involved an extensive and broad review of literature related to forests, carbon dynamics, and climate, revealing perspectives that are often missing but critically important in policy discussions.”

Dr. Roger Sedjo, a member of both the SAF team and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) says, “I was concerned about the complexity of the SAB recommendations that resulted from our discussions, and was also uncertain whether the SAB process captured the importance of market dynamics, including the effects of markets on forest investment levels. The magnitude and timing of benefits from use of forest bioenergy depends upon availability of markets for wood products. This article clearly shows how influential markets are as we consider how forest biomass factors into our energy future.”

Sedjo also noted that timing of carbon benefits is often misrepresented in current literature-something that is also addressed in this article.

University of Washington scientist Dr. Elaine Oneil adds, “In the West, reducing forest biomass density is an effective means of stemming the threat of large-scale intensive wildfires. Generally, the non-merchantable residues from thinning projects are burned on site to reduce fire risk and improve forest health. Utilizing residues to produce biomass energy, instead of burning them in the forest, returns carbon to the atmosphere at the same time as burning residues on site without energy recovery, so the net impact of energy production on biogenic carbon emissions is essentially zero and the benefits from using residues for energy are immediate. However, these benefits are not possible without markets for these residues.”

North Carolina State Professor Dr. Robert Abt is impressed by the SAF team’s work, which represents different disciplines and regions of the country. “The study provides a comprehensive review of the science surrounding wood bioenergy and carbon emissions. Unlike many discussions, it recognizes the economic relationships among wood bioenergy uses, forest harvests, and forest investments by providing a review of both the theoretical rationale and the empirical evidence of the effect of an increase in wood demand on forest carbon. The literature demonstrates that increased demand for wood bioenergy can lead not only to increased harvests, but also to increased forest investments, which provide offsetting forest growth and associated offsetting increases in forest carbon.”

SAF President Dave Walters, a Certified Forester (CF), expresses his satisfaction with the work of the team, saying, “SAF is dedicated to fostering scientific understanding informed by practice. I am proud that SAF was able to attract leaders in the fields of forest economics, substitution effects, and biogenic carbon accounting to inform the discussion of the treatment of biogenic carbon emissions.”

SAF, chartered in 1900 to advance the science, education, technology, and practice of forestry for the benefit of society, will continue to work on behalf of its 12,000 professional members across the country to promote scientific understanding and encourage dialogue on this important issue that will impact forest management now and in the future.

The article is available online:

SAF Biogenic Carbon Accounting Team: Reid A. Miner, National Council for Air and Stream Improvement; Robert C. Abt, North Carolina State University; James L. Bowyer, Dovetail Partners; Marilyn Buford, USDA Forest Service, Forest Management Sciences; Robert W. Malmsheimer, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry; Jay O’Laughlin, University of Idaho; Elaine Oneil, Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials; Roger Sedjo, Resources for the Future; and Kenneth Skog, USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory.

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