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Forest harvesting and the carbon debt in boreal east-central Canada

Abstract

Conversion of carbon-rich, primary boreal landscapes to managed ones through clearcut-based silviculture has the potential to decrease landscape-level carbon storage and thereby incur a significant carbon debt. We calculated carbon debts and payback periods associated with production of wood pellets to replace coal, oil and natural gas in electricity generation for such landscape conversion in boreal east-central Canada. Local forest inventory information in combination with the Carbon Budget Model (CBM-CFS3) was used to estimate biomass and dead wood carbon stocks after fire or clearcutting, and resulting age- and disturbance-specific carbon stock estimates were used to populate simulated landscapes. Based on empirical information, we investigated a range of fire-return intervals in the primary landscapes (114–262 years), harvest rotation ages (80–100 years) and conversion efficiency factors (0.17–0.71 tonnes fossil fuel carbon eliminated per tonne harvested wood carbon). After a first rotation of harvesting, carbon stocks declined 33–50% relative to stocks in the natural, fire-dominated landscapes and payback periods ranged from 92 to 757 years. The type of fossil fuel had the strongest effect on payback periods: under average efficiencies, ranges were 122–207, 156–268 and 278–481 years for coal, oil and natural gas respectively. These calculations suggest that under a wide range of assumptions, clearcut-based management of boreal primary landscapes to produce wood pellets to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation will result in net emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for many decades.

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Acknowledgements

We are indebted to M. Penner and S. Kull, who provided assistance in modelling stand volumes and implementing CBM-CF3, respectively. We would also like to thank anonymous reviewers for relevant literature and comments and J. Boan, F. Daviet, M. von Mirbach and J. Ray for comments.

Funding

The research was funded by Greenpeace Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Discovery Grant to JRM).

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JRM undertook the main analyses and wrote the first draft; BH provided key parameterization for calculation of conversion efficiency factors and contributed to a second draft; PWP identified key literature and contributed to a second draft.

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Correspondence to Jay R Malcolm.

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Malcolm, J.R., Holtsmark, B. & Piascik, P.W. Forest harvesting and the carbon debt in boreal east-central Canada. Climatic Change 161, 433–449 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02711-8

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Keywords

  • Boreal forest
  • Forest harvesting
  • Carbon debt
  • Wood pellets
  • Electricity generation