If we want to slow global warming, we need to stop being such tree-huggers and start embracing the world's forests. And yes, there's a difference.
This is part three in our "Wood Wars" series.
Next: forests and global warming
From earliest childhood, most people naturally want to be in or near trees--the seed of environmentalist leanings for many of us. Solving problems like global warming will take a more nuanced and rational approach that balances our love of nature with the economic and environmental realities of forest systems.
Some children have pets. I had trees. I played in and under them, talked to them, and believed that they understood me and communicated back. I spent two whole summers barely touching the ground at all because I was up in my favorite tree, reading or thinking.
For people like me, it can be difficult to take a cold, hard look at the environmental impact of forestry practices. The only equation that matters in our hearts is "Tree=Good."
But we need to use our heads here: deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And, like it or not, one of the most promising ways to ensure that the world's forests thrive and sequester as much carbon as possible is to manage forests responsibly--where "manage forests" often means "cut down trees to make money."
While trees and forests have much to offer--from recreation to endangered species habitat to job creation--their central role in carbon sequestration and storage cannot be ignored. The science of carbon flows in forests is quite complex and not always well understood, and getting emissions goals to align with "co-benefits" for ecosystems and economies is even more complicated.
With that in mind, here are three big things you should understand about forests and carbon before choosing wood and other forestry products.
1) Valuable forests are more likely to be protected
"There's a tremendous amount of tropical and subtropical forest that's going to be cut down if there aren't additional incentives to preserve them as forests," says Mark Moroge, coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance Climate Program. A forest that has a "tangible impact on local people, indigenous groups, and their lives and livelihoods" is more likely to remain a forest.
In other words, in many parts of the world, a forest is unlikely to survive if it's not a significant part of the economy. One of the major forces threatening forests today, Moroge said, is agriculture. The United Nations REDD+ Program (REDD is for "reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation") aims to add extra incentives by providing "carbon payments" for sustainable forest management.
While REDD+ has been controversial in its past forms (many environmentalists have viewed it as opening the door to logging in virgin forests), the program has evolved to include more protections for both habitat and indigenous peoples as well as more transparency. In many regions, the choice may be between a managed forest and no forest at all--and that's a no-brainer. "REDD could be done in a right way and a wrong way," Moroge argued. "We're trending toward the right way."
2) Forest management matters. A lot.
In order to maximize carbon storage, getting economic value from forests has to be balanced with allowing the forest to thrive. A tree plantation is not the same thing as a forest.
Whether you're in a Brazilian rainforest or a Maine wood lot, land management has a huge impact on how much carbon is stored there. Less intensive harvesting generally results in greater carbon storage. This isn't only because of the trees themselves but also because of the carbon stored in the soil.
"We know a lot more about the above-ground side because it basically comes down to measuring the biomass," says John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. "Below ground is a little more uncertain, mostly because it's expensive and complicated to measure below-ground carbon. But basically if there's disturbance to the soil, there's carbon loss to the atmosphere."
I asked Gunn if you could rely on product certifications like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to guide choices based solely on carbon considerations. Not really, he said.
"The challenge is that there would be big landowners that meet both standards," he explained, and there is also "a range of management within both those systems in terms of how individual landowners meet those standards." However, he added, "The bar for FSC favors lower-intensity management--either less frequent returns to an individual stand of trees or a lot more retention when those stands are harvested."
In other words, there is a spectrum of management practices within certification systems, but FSC-certified wood is more likely to come from a less-intensively harvested forest that stores more carbon. Keep in mind that many local, family-owned wood producers can't afford any type of certification; fortunately, you can talk to them directly about their management practices.
3) Paper or lumber? Service life makes a big difference
Another consideration is where timber goes after it's harvested. Even though new forest growth tends to sequester carbon very rapidly, a forest where trees are allowed to get older before harvesting will ultimately store more carbon--because larger trees get made into lumber instead of just chips or pulp.
"Paper is a very energy-intensive activity," says Gunn. "You end up with a product that doesn't stay around very long and may end up in a landfill, where it's emitting methane instead of carbon dioxide. Harvesting bigger trees for longer-lived products looks better over time."
Again, Gunn emphasizes, you can't break it down cleanly between FSC and SFI, but the less intensive the harvesting, "the better it's going to look from the atmospheric perspective."
From trees to forests
It's easy to fall into the trap of sounding like a "tree-hugger" (especially if you literally are one), but we need to move forward with a mature and nuanced perspective that truly balances economic considerations with ecological ones. Whatever our feelings, whether we're talking about jobs or habitats, it's not really about trees at all: it's about forests, which are complex systems that are crucial to human livelihood and well-being. Judicious clear-cutting can sometimes be part of sustainable forestry. Preventing boreal forests from overtaking the arctic tundra may ultimately be crucial to human survival.
The issue of forestry practices and what constitutes "sustainable" harvesting is an emotional and complicated one with a long and divisive history. Trying to take global warming into account on top of everything else isn't going to be easy--but it's one of the most important priorities we have, and our choices make a difference.