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Large-scale forest bio-energy creates carbon debt

Study says nurturing healthy forests does more to curb global warming

Healthy, growing forests are good carbon sinks; converting woody biomass to energy results in a carbon debt that takes 100 years to repay.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — While some logging advocates continue to talk up forest biomass as a green energy source, there’s good reason it isn’t happening on a significant scale. Cutting wood and burning live trees, in whatever form, is just not energy efficient, except perhaps on a modest scale with low-frequency harvests every 50 to 100 years — or on a small, local level, where already dead wood is converted fuel on the spot.

In one of the most recent studies, researchers at Duke and Oregon State universities concluded that maintaining intact forests as carbon sinks does more to curb climate change over the next century than cutting and burning their wood as fuel.

After modeling numerous harvesting and conversion scenarios, the study concluded that it takes more 100 years to repay the carbon debt — the net reduction in carbon storage — incurred by cutting, transporting and burning woody forest biomass.

“The take-home message of our study is that managing forests for maximal carbon storage can yield appreciable, and highly predictable, carbon mitigation benefits within the coming century,” said Stephen R. Mitchell, a research scientist at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Harvesting forests for bioenergy production would require such a long time scale to yield net benefits that it is unlikely to be an effective avenue for climate-change mitigation.”

“Substituting woody bioenergy for fossil fuels isn’t an effective method for climate change mitigation,” he said. Wood stores only about half the amount of carbon-created energy as an equivalent amount of fossil fuels, he explained, so you have to burn more of it to produce as much energy.

“In most cases, it would take more than 100 years for the amount of energy substituted to equal the amount of carbon storage achieved if we just let the forests grow and not harvest them at all,” he said.

Mitchell is lead author of the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy. Mark E. Harmon and Kari E. O’Connell of Oregon State University co-authored the study.

“Few of our combinations achieved carbon sequestration parity in less than 100 years, even when we set the bioenergy conversion factor at near-maximal levels,” Harmon said. Because wood stores less carbon-created energy than fossil fuels, you have to harvest, transport and burn more of it to produce as much energy. This extra activity produces additional carbon emissions.

“These emissions must be offset if forest bioenergy is to be used without adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the near-term,” he said.

“It’s a Catch-22,” she said. “Less intensive methods of harvesting release fewer emissions but yield less energy. The most intensive methods, such as clear-cutting, produce more energy but also release more carbon back into the atmosphere, prolonging the time required to achieve carbon sequestration parity.”

Given current economic realities and the increasing worldwide demand for forest products and land for agriculture, it’s unlikely that many forests will be managed in coming years solely for carbon storage, Mitchell said, but that makes it all the more critical that scientists, resource managers and policymakers work together to maximize the carbon storage potential of the remaining stands.

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