New Study Questions Wood Product Sustainability

Isolated walnut tree
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The hardwood industry, and indeed the entire wood products industry sector, has long fought an uphill battle to better inform the general public, the media, and government policymakers about the sustainability and environmental friendliness of using wood in all its amazing applications. Unfortunately, just when we seem to be making progress, another questionable report comes out that is touted by those who would prefer that our forestlands remain untouched and unmanaged. The World Resource Institute (WRI) is the latest organization to strike.

The WRI recently released a study challenging scientific and public policy claims that the wood products industry is a low or neutral emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). Some of the key assertions of the study include:

  • Current and future demand for wood products undermines efforts to reduce GHG emissions.
  • Between 2010 and 2050, annual wood harvests are expected to release three times more carbon dioxide than the global aviation industry.
  • Three million square miles of forestland are expected to be “razed” (the size of the continental U.S.).
  • A massive accounting gap in global greenhouse gas production; netting carbon losses from new harvests with carbon sequestration from the growth of broad forest areas is “inappropriate” and gives a false impression of low, zero, or even negative greenhouse gas emissions from wood harvests.
  • On one hand, recently harvested trees cannot be included in carbon accounting because you cannot guarantee those forests would have continued to grow.
  • Yet, on the other hand, they claim current growth can be attributed to past harvests and land clearing.

The Hardwood Federation is in close contact with our industry allies, working to put together a strategy to address this claim. As a first step, our friends at the National Alliance of Forest Owners developed some talking points to use with any members of Congress that may have questions. Key points include:

  • The study ignores a robust, well-established body of science showing the opposite of their claim.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, in contradiction to the report’s authors, that “in the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.
  • Eliminating forest harvest is not the solution to healthy, vibrant forests. Harvesting on National Forests in Washington state was shut down for 30 years in the 1990s. Forests were free of direct human activity and management. What happened? Compared to private lands in Washington state, national forests are growing half as much, and 70 percent is lost to mortality.
  • Cherry-picking science is dangerous. The authors use international forestry data from specific regions to conclude for all forests globally misrepresented forestry harvest emissions and underrepresented the sequestration values of replanting and managing forests.
  • In the U.S., we don’t cut and move on. We replant, regrow, and regenerate in a never-ending cycle. Private forest owners grow 43 percent more trees than they harvest each year.
  • Felling a tree does not cause an emission. The carbon goes from being in a live, standing tree to a log, then to a product.
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While these and other facts can be used in response, it is clear from past debate that direct response from the industry is often viewed as self-serving and does not move the needle in the court of public opinion. Fortunately, some scholars in the forest economics and modeling community have begun to respond to the study. For example, on August 8, Brent Sohngen, a professor of environmental and resource economics at The Ohio State University, published a blog posting entitled “Why Global Wood Harvests Aren’t Emitting 3.5 to 4.2 Gt CO2 Per Year in Net Emissions.”

Professor Sohngen pushed back on several statements made in the WRI study, including the following:

  • The authors claimed carbon cost of harvesting depends on “a counterfactual that assumes no harvesting at all,” and “their approach and model makes no sense.”
  • “They acknowledge economics is hard, so they ignore it and instead deploy a set of arbitrary rules to consume wood, harvest trees, and regenerate trees.”
  • Thus, “their key result that there are 3.5 to 4.2 Gt CO2 in net emissions from wood harvesting is ridiculous.”
  • More specifically, Professor Sohngen states that the authors get to their key result through multiple technical errors, including:
    • “First, they ignore economics and construct a purely biophysical
      model. This will result in overestimating harvests and underestimating regrowth…”
    • “Second, the WRI study is just an implementation of the incorrect argument by Searchinger et al. (2009) that emissions from timber harvesting and burning should be double counted…Searchinger’s argument is wrong. Double counting emissions, in contradiction to the correct approach by the IPCC, leads to less, not more, forests.”
    • “Third, WRI is making a normative judgment…to ignore tree growth before harvesting. This convention is different from every other forest sector model.” (And this greatly overstates the carbon impacts of harvesting.)
    • “Fourth, their approach to discounting is just strange…[and] amplifies their results and ignores how markets respond…”
    • “Fifth, their counterfactual is unrealistic, and not just because it assumes no wood harvesting.” The problem also is that they run “a scenario of no harvesting of wood without considering the market response.”

Of course, more scholars, scientists, and environmentalists need to come out and push back on this flawed reasoning, and we are hopeful more such work is in the pipeline. We will continue to work closely with our allies and double our efforts to share the facts about the wood products industry with policy leaders in D.C. Hopefully, the talking points will allow you to push back on your local level as well.

Dana Lee Cole is the executive director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the United States and acts as the industry advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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