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How Foresters Limit Their Carbon Footprint

How Foresters Limit Their Carbon Footprint

Forests absorb airborne carbon dioxide, store carbon in wood, and return pure fresh oxygen to the atmosphere. As that process continues, though, gases in the atmosphere absorb the planet’s heat and radiate it in all directions. When that heat cannot escape Earth’s atmosphere, the planet’s temperature warms.

Photograph by Flickr, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Photograph by Flickr, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Scientists estimate that nature is only able to remove about half of all carbon dioxide added to the environment. The good news is that forests, particularly those in North America, are continuously pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in solid wood. Because these forests are growing more than is being harvested, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that U.S. forests currently serve as a carbon ‘sink’, offsetting approximately 13% of U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Canadian Harvesting Practices

Wood products harvested from forests continue to store carbon throughout their use. According to the Canadian Climate Forum’s Issue Paper #4 from Fall 2015, Canadian timber harvesting practices emit minimal greenhouse gases. Improvements are continually being made to the industry’s lumber manufacturing practices to reduces its carbon footprint.

Energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce forest products are less than materials wood often replaces, such as metals, concrete and plastic. Canada’s forest products industry has been a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its manufacturing processes. Since 1990, the pulp and paper industry in Canada has reduced emissions by about 65%. This has been accomplished by replacing fossil fuels used for mill processes with low net-carbon emissions energy generated by burning wood residues once disposed of by burning without energy recovery.

U.S. Harvesting Practices

The United States has about 751 million acres of forest area, equal to about one third of the country’s total land area. According to the 2010 National Report on Sustainable Forests, forty-four percent of United States forests are owned by local, state, or national governments and the rest are owned by private land owners. Sierra Pacific Industries, a forest products company, is one of the largest private land owners in the country, and is typical of how landowners approach sustainability. Regarding how their land is managed, Mark Pawlicki, the Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability for Sierra Pacific Industries, states,

“Sierra Pacific manages its forest lands on a sustainable basis. In California, we operate under the state’s rigid Forest Practices Act and Forest Practice Rules which require large timberland owners to not harvest more than they grow. In both California and Washington timber harvests are conducted only after a review and approval by state regulatory agencies. In addition, all of SPI’s 1.9 million acres of forests are certified under the independent Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which ensures that we are managing our lands on a sustainable basis for wood products, wildlife habitat, water quality, and other environmental attributes.”

Forest Certification

Voluntary third-party forest certification began in the 1990s in response to market concerns about forest management and illegal logging, primarily in developing countries. Other widely used forest certification programs in North America are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programmme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Programs like these are all designed to assure consumers that the wood products they purchase have been produced sustainably. They are also assured that these forests are doing their part to offset fossil fuel carbon emissions.

Resources

 

This is the second of a five-part series on forests and climate change.

Previous: The Carbon Cycle

Coming Next:

  • How Non-Profit Forest Certification Programs Were Born
  • REDD+ and UN-REDD
  • The Future of Forestry

Successes of the Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol

This month marks the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, one of the most successful international treaties that has, among other things, reduced the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Forests are also critical in meeting the challenge of total emissions reductions through their ability to act as carbon sinks and safely remove carbon dioxide, CO2, from the atmosphere. Trees help the planet by absorbing carbon dioxide. They release the oxygen back into the environment and use the carbon internally, to produce sugars for growth. Trees continue to store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere for the duration of its use, and those benefits are extended when those wood products are recycled time and time again. For more resources on the sustainability of North American forests, visit the reference section at the bottom of this page.

History

The ozone layer acts as a shield to protect Earth and all the plants and animals within it from ultraviolet radiation. In the 1970’s, scientists learned that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, had been migrating to the upper atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer.

Photo attribute: Photograph by NASA, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Photo attribute: Photograph by NASA, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The scientists involved in the initial discovery, Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work concerning the formation and depletion of the ozone layer. However, during the 1970’s, CFC’s were commonly found in household products like hairspray and deodorant. Years later in 1985, scientists discovered that the Antarctic ozone hole, a layer of ozone above the Antarctic, had been shrinking at higher rates than they originally calculated and it was proved that the widespread use of CFC’s had caused it. The international community responded with the Montreal Protocol to eliminate the production and sale of ozone-harming substances.

According to the United Nation’s Environment Programme, below are some of the successes of the Montreal Protocol

  • The ozone layer is recovering. It should return to pre-1980 levels by the middle of the century
  • It has helped the global community avoid millions of cases of fatal and non-fatal skin cancer, and cataracts
  • As of 2010, the consumption and production of ozone depleting substances has stopped
  • It became the first treaty to be universally ratified

Paris Agreement of 2015

Since CFC’s and other ozone depleting substances are also global warming gasses, the reduction of one helped reduce the other. However, there’s still work to be done. Scientists estimate that the size of the Arctic ozone hole won’t return to pre-1970 levels until the middle of the 21st century, so the full impact of the Montreal Protocol might not be realized for at least another forty years. Moreover, the planet is still warming. At the Paris Climate Conference in December of 2015, 195 countries agreed to a global action plan that will limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. This historic breakthrough is the result of nine years of United Nations diplomats working together to stop global warming, requiring action from all countries. In an interview, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said, “For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.”

Resources

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