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Carbon storage potential of harvested wood: summary and policy implications


Within national greenhouse gas inventories, many countries now use widely-accepted methodologies to track carbon that continues to be stored in wood products and landfills after its removal from the forest. Beyond simply tracking post-harvest wood carbon, expansion of this pool has further been suggested as a potential climate change mitigation strategy. This paper summarizes data on the fate of carbon through the wood processing chain and on greenhouse gas emissions generated by processing, transport, use and disposal of wood. As a result of wood waste and decomposition, the carbon stored long-term in harvested wood products may be a small proportion of that originally stored in the standing trees—across the United States approximately 1% may remain in products in-use and 13% in landfills at 100 years post-harvest. Related processing and transport emissions may in some cases approach the amount of CO2e stored in long-lived solid wood products. Policies that promote wood product carbon storage as a climate mitigation strategy must assess full life-cycle impacts, address accounting uncertainties, and balance multiple public values derived from forests.

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Fig. 1
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  1. Carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e) permits aggregation of all greenhouse gases into a single metric based on global warming potentials over 100 years. Wood carbon is converted to CO2e by multiplying by 3.667 to account for the oxygen combined with carbon as it burns or decomposes. This is a simplification that may underestimate the global warming potential represented by intact wood stocks, as some decomposing wood may be released in other forms.

  2. See Supplementary materials for computation details.

  3. Emissions reported in a solid wood products survey by Skog et al. 2008 varied as much as five orders of magnitude for facilities producing similar products.

  4. High-lignin papers may remain in landfills for a considerable time, but the methane released from the breakdown of land-filled paper and the energy required for paper production outweigh any carbon storage benefit. The assumption that paper production contributes little on balance to mitigating GHG emissions could change if a greater percentage of paper were recycled or if more of the methane generated by land-filled paper were captured for energy generation.

  5. Thomassen et al. (2008) compare ‘attributional’ and ‘consequential’ LCA approaches. We follow the attributional approach here, which measures impacts given current technologies and consumption patterns. Consequential LCA would predict effects after markets respond fully to a change in use of the LCA product. Though it may better reflect the ultimate impacts of policies that change production patterns, consequential LCA estimates are less certain than those for an attributional LCA.

  6. UNFCCC used 100 years for global warming potential calculations (Forster et al. 2007) and the United States Department of Energy in its voluntary greenhouse gas registry (often called 1605(b)) also uses 100 years to assess long-term carbon storage.

  7. Specific gravity of branches and stemwood are highly correlated (Swenson and Enquist 2008), so percentages by volume can be used to approximate percentages by mass. Lowest state values are for states with very low harvest volumes, including Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Given reliance on surveys for Timber Product Output data, small sample size may affect these estimates.

  8. Carbon released consequent to logging would eventually occur through natural tree mortality; but logging will release carbon over a few years that would have remained intact in living trees for several decades or even centuries in the absence of harvest activity.

  9. See Supplemental materials for conversion of first-order decay k value from Zhang et al. (2008) to half-life for logging residue.

  10. Wood processing byproducts used for fuel are not included in fuelwood percentages, since carbon losses from this source would already be included as part of processing waste. Since bark may already be included in primary mill waste as well as in fuel and pulpwood volumes, we also assume conservatively that this loss is already accounted for under other categories.

  11. See Supplementary materials for detailed explanations of data extracted from product LCAs and unit conversions.

  12. Portion of primary mill waste that is burned or land-filled is United States average from Smith et al. (2006).

  13. See Supplementary materials.

  14. See Supplementary materials.

  15. The curve labeled 1st order (Smith et al. (2006) revised) uses the following formula: FR = (1/(1 + (LN(2)/HL))^Y, where FR is the fraction remaining in use, HL is half-life in years, and Y is years elapsed. Curve is weighted average of solid wood products for the Unites States, with half-lives and product mix from Skog (2008). This curve is used by the United States Department of Energy voluntary greenhouse gas registry (1605(b)) and was used in this paper to estimate carbon remaining in products 100 years after harvest (last black bar in Fig. 1). EFI is European Forest Institute, NIES is the Japan National Institute for Environmental Studies. All formulas are obtained from Miner (2006). Initial stores begin at 18% since that is the approximate portion of standing tree carbon that would initially be incorporated in solid wood products.

  16. See Supplementary materials.

  17. Percent of wastes land-filled and percent subject to decomposition over 100 years is from Skog (2008). See Supplementary materials for calculations of the global warming effects of methane.

  18. Since few timber management operations harvest for long-lived solid wood products alone, expanded use of wood products would increase production of a range of products, including many that do not contribute significantly to long-term carbon retention. Hence the emissions illustrated here, expressed relative to the carbon present in the finished product, would underestimate total emissions impacts of expanded wood products output, which would include emissions from co-products.

  19. Units are metric tons of emissions as CO2e per ton CO2e embedded in wood in finished building or other product. The CORRIM analysis applies to shells of two single-family wood-framed homes suitable for southeastern (200 m2) and northern (192 m2) climates in the United States; includes roof, siding, and internal walls, but excludes finished floors, trim, doors, cabinets, furniture. Sharai-Rad and Welling (2002) reported emissions for a multi-story simple wood-frame structure, did not report harvest emissions or transport separately, and did not include use/maintenance/demolition, so emissions are shown as a single bar. Gower et al. 2006 assumed lumber was used for new homes 45%, renovations 20%, short-lived projects 20%, and very short-lived projects 15%. Transport from mill to construction site is shown separately to illustrate its potential to influence the total. This assessment omitted emissions from construction and use/maintenance/ demolition.

  20. See Supplementary materials for computation details. Data from Gower et al. (2006) includes the GHG emissions from fossil fuel combusted for harvest, skidding and road-building, part of a larger cradle-to-grave LCA for all wood harvested from a western Canadian forest operation in one year. Johnson et al. (2005) calculated emissions from representative operations under low and high intensity management in the northwestern and southeastern U.S. Reported emissions include CO2, CH4, and N2O from harvesting, including loading of trucks, and site preparation, including use of fertilizers. See Supplemental materials for computation details.

  21. Bergman and Bowe (2008) reported gate-to-gate emissions per cubic meter of dry planed hardwood lumber in the northeastern United States. Gower et al. (2006) include the GHG emissions that occur at the sawmill (no transport) from an LCA for all wood harvested from a western Canadian forest operation in one year. Kline (2005) tracked gate-to-gate emissions per cubic meter of oriented strandboard in the southeastern United States. Liski et al. (2001) assessed emissions associated with gate-to-gate lumber and plywood production in Finland. Milota et al. (2005) documented gate-to-gate emissions per cubic meter of planed dried pine lumber in the southeastern United States. Rivela et al. (2007) estimated gate-to-gate emissions per cubic meter of medium density fiberboard. Wilson and Sakimoto (2005) reported gate-to-gate emissions per cubic meter of softwood plywood in the southeastern United States. See Supplemental materials for computation details. Kline (2005), Milota et al. (2005), and Wilson and Sakimoto (2005) provided input to the CORRIM house frame LCA illustrated in Fig. 3, which combines manufacturing with construction emissions.

  22. Meil et al. (2004) assessed GHG impacts for construction of the CORRIM model houses described above, including transport from manufacturer to construction site. US EPA (2006) estimated emissions per wet ton of material delivered to a landfill, including those associated with manufacturing of lumber and medium density fiberboard plus transport of raw materials and of finished products to retail. As part of a larger LCA, Gower et al. 2006 reported transport emissions for wholesale distribution of softwood lumber produced in one year from a property in Canada.

  23. Emissions are from construction-site activities required to produce a basic structure (slab or foundation, exterior walls with windows but not doors, interior walls, subfloors, and roof) for wood-based model homes in Atlanta and Minneapolis. (Transportation was reported separately). Emissions were not reported by material component, so the wood portion is estimated based on proportional material weights.

  24. Houses were timber-frame, block, and brick and global warming potential as CO2e was reported separately for production and construction stages. See Supplementary materials for computations.

  25. These are generally ‘gate-to-gate’ studies that do not incorporate forest impacts within the life-cycle boundary.

  26. Prevailing technology and physical characteristics of the fuel (including higher moisture content) generally mean lower combustion efficiency and less efficient conversion to useful energy when compared with more uniform and concentrated fuels. Replacing coal with wood in an electricity generating plant with unchanged output would reduce coal emissions by only 0.66 t for every 1.00 t wood emissions, so even well-documented substitution benefits need to be discounted by an appropriate factor.

  27. The United States forest products industry as a whole, including paper, released about 212 million t CO2e in 2004–2005 from processing and transport, while these operations over the same time period increased storage in products and landfills by only 108.5 million t CO2e (Skog et al. 2008 pp. 9 and 25). This study assumed that wood product manufacturing has no effect on forest carbon, and that wood energy used in forest products manufacturing adds no net GHGs to the atmosphere, and modifying these assumptions might increase net GHG impacts.


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Thanks to the Merck Family Fund for financial support of research leading to this paper, and to reviewers of earlier reports for critiques and information sharing. Special thanks to Joe Kerkvliet and Pete Morton whose careful reviews greatly clarified the presentation. And finally, grateful thanks to three anonymous reviewers who challenged assumptions, provided references, and asked for further explanation that clarified my own thinking and its expression.

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Correspondence to Ann Ingerson.

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Ingerson, A. Carbon storage potential of harvested wood: summary and policy implications. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Change 16, 307–323 (2011).

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  • Carbon sequestration
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Harvested wood products
  • Offsets
  • Life-cycle assessment