The role of forests in carbon and climate mitigation may seem to be very straightforward. Since trees capture carbon as they grow and forests store massive quantities of it, it is easy to conclude that trees and forests should be treated as carbon sinks and left alone. But this kind of thinking reflects an incomplete understanding of the role of forests in carbon mitigation. In reality, forests have multiple roles to play in carbon mitigation, and forest management can help to optimize those roles. A new report from the Society of American Foresters, based on an extensive review of numerous recent studies of forest carbon relationships, shows that a policy of active and responsible forest management is more effective in capturing and storing atmospheric carbon than a policy of hands-off management that precludes periodic harvests and use of wood products.
While acknowledging that forests have a myriad of values and that it is not appropriate to manage every forested acre with a sole focus on carbon mitigation, the report’s authors conclude that national environmental and energy policies need to be based upon a shared understanding of forest carbon benefits. The research identifies four basic premises to establishing effective policies:
1. Energy produced from forest biomass returns carbon to the atmosphere that plants absorbed in the relatively recent past. It essentially results in no net release of carbon as long as overall forest inventories are stable or increasing (as is the case with forests in the United States).
2. Energy derived from burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has resided in the Earth for millions of years, effectively creating a one-way flow to the atmosphere. Whether emissions from fossil fuel combustion are ultimately taken up by land, ocean or forests, they are not returned to fossil fuel reserves on anything less than a geologic time scale.
3. Wood products used in place of more energy-intensive materials, such as metals, concrete, and plastic reduce carbon emissions, store carbon, and can provide additional biomass that can be substituted for fossil fuels to produce energy.
4. Sustainably managed forests can provide greater carbon mitigation benefits than unmanaged forests, while delivering a wide range of environmental and social benefits including timber and biomass resources, jobs and economic opportunities, clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
The report emphasizes that a rational energy and environmental policy framework must be based on the premise that atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are increasing primarily because of the addition of geologic fossil fuel–based carbon into the carbon cycle. Findings indicate that forest carbon policy that builds on accumulated scientific knowledge can be an important part of a comprehensive energy policy that reduces fossil fuel consumption and provides carbon mitigation benefits while also delivering a full range of environmental and social benefits, including clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreation. This report provides a summary of the analysis completed by the Society of American Foresters and of the related research reviewed by report authors.