Seminar addresses carbon accounting and forest management

By Erin Voegele | January 30, 2014

Resources for the Future hosted a seminar Jan. 29 focused on the issues of carbon accounting and forest management. The event, titled “Considering the Contributions of Forests in the Management of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” was cosponsored by the Society of American Foresters.

Roger Sedjo, senior fellow and director of the Forest Economics and Policy Program at RFF, moderated the discussion. He opened the seminar by noting that since the onset of concerns about global warming, it has been recognized that forests can play an important role in the moderation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission.

He explained that forests can impact atmospheric carbon in two ways. First, they can expand and contract. When forests expand they sequester carbon, and when they contract they release carbon. As such, forest management can play an important role in policies designed to address these emissions. Second, forests can provide wood biomass that can be used as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels.

Sedjo noted that there has been a lot of policy discussion over how to account for biogenic carbon emissions generated at bioenergy facilities. One school of thought calls for each facility to be monitored separately. Another calls for broader accounting methods.

“To me, some of the approaches to monitoring biogenic emissions by facility have some wrong-headed elements,” Sedjo said.

He went on to explain that net emissions can be measured by looking at various individual wood energy facilities, or those changes can be monitored by looking at what happens to the overall stock of wood in the forest. “A huge advantage of the second approach is its low cost compared with detailed monitoring of individual facilities,” Sedjo said, noting the U.S. Forest Service already undertakes a forest inventory assessment that collects much of the data that is needed.

He added that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s accounting framework tends to address biogenic emissions within the context of the second approach, treating it as a land use issue and excluding biogenic emissions from the energy sector. “It is widely agreed that the IPCC approach would not work well for individual facilities, but the IPCC approach could work very well indeed when we are looking at very large regions.”

According to Sedjo, U.S. forest stock is currently expanding despite drawdowns for forest products and natural disturbances. He estimated that from 1960 to 2000, close to 2 million acres of forest were planted each year.

Dave Cleaves, climate change advisor to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, also spoke at the seminar. He opened his presentation by noting that the U.S. is involved in a discussion over the issue of biogenic versus fossil fuels in the context of the Council on Environmental Quality’s new proposed regulations for incorporating climate change in NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) national government policy analysis.

One of the issues, Cleaves said, is how to treat biogenic carbon. While in the past there wasn’t much actual data to help guide good policy decisions, he said that issue is now improved. The Forest Service has used Forest Inventory Analysis information to develop a 23-year carbon baseline trend for every national forest in the country. With the help of FIA and its experts, an analysis is also being completed on the disturbance sources for every forest. The point is, he said, is that the Forest Inventory and Analysis National Program and the expertise that goes with it is allowing better policy decisions to be made.

Cleaves estimated that the FIA is about a $70 million a year investment, accounting for about 25 percent of the U.S. Forest Service research portfolio. FIA data, he said, is helping to answer a lot of big questions, including how carbon relates to other ecosystem services.

He also characterized U.S. forest systems by saying, “To talk about the nation’s forest as if its singular and use one size fits all descriptions is crazy.” He said FIA data is helping the Forest Service better and more accurately tell the stores of what is happening with different forests lands around the nation.

He also addressed the issues of above ground and below ground forest carbon sinks. “The FIA allows us to look at our forest carbon resource, where it is, how fast its growing, who owns it, where is it in the pools, and I think this is quite important because we can assume that our forest carbon policies are going to work on the above ground portion of the forest carbon…but in some areas 50, 60 or more percent of that carbon is below ground,” Cleaves said.

William Stewart, cooperative extension forest specialist at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about some of differences between forest lands in the eastern and western U.S. He also addressed the complexity of carbon accounting by noting California produces mostly saw logs, which are sold into the building sector. It takes less energy for builders to build with wood, and wood’s insulating ability helps reduce heating and cooling energy consumption. However, those benefits aren’t accounted for in the forest sector; they are accounted for in the building sector.

Speaking about difference in regional forests, Stewart noted that there is no longer any net carbon sequestration in the Rock Mountain forests due to fire and insects. Alternatively, forest land in the Southeast U.S. has a very distinct development pattern, as relatively shorter rotations and a large volume of landowners making individual decisions means there is a lot of change. However, he noted the overall carbon sequestration values of the overall Southeast region was largely unchanged.

Disturbances in Southeastern U.S. forests are generally due to management and financially driven decisions by investors, he continued, while west coast disturbances are driven primarily by fires, insects and other factors over which landowners have little control.

Robert Malmsheimer, a professor at state University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, rounded out the panel discussion with a presentation of research undertaken by the Society of American Foresters that focused on biogenic carbon accounting.

“The current debate about biomass energy really tends to focus on the short-term direct effects of increasing the use of forest biomass,” Malmsheimer said. “This causes two problems. Number one, it causes confusion. It seems like every week there is new study that comes out that is designed to tell us a little bit more about forest biomass, about carbon accounting with forest biomass, things like that. And, quite frankly, the big picture gets lost in all of that noise…The other thing that this does is it causes the benefits of sustainably produced biobased fuels and the materials to be understated because we…are not focusing on the big picture.”

Malmsheimer offered a simple explanation of climate change. “For hundreds of thousands of years, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere has remained relatively stable. What has changed?” he asked. “We as human beings have been adding geologic carbon into that system at a rate that that system cannot assimilate. That is really the problem.”

One way to deal with that problem, Malmsheimer said, is product substitution. This means the substitution of renewable products for fossil fuels. For example, the substitution of wood for coal. “What we are doing is we are substituting biogenic carbon for geologic carbon and we are addressing climate change. Those benefits are real and they are permanent. That is very, very important,” he continued, noting the same principal applies to products other than energy.

Malmsheimer stressed that much debate today focuses on timelines and carbon debt. Essentially, how long it takes before those benefits are realized. “The timing of those benefits is what is often debated, but the benefits themselves are not debated. So, if we can produce materials and fuels so that we don’t have to produce those with geologic carbon, there is a climate change benefit that we can see,” he said.

Malmsheimer also stressed that he is not advocating for any forests in the U.S., or anywhere else, be managed for carbon. “That is the landowner’s decision,” he said. “What we are strictly trying to do is understand when a landowner makes a decision that they want to harvest products from their lands, what is the carbon accounting that goes on with that decision.”

During his presentation, Malmsheimer also spoke about the main findings of the SAF’s literature review study, which is expected to be published in an academic journal soon. The study found that there are ultimate benefits to using biomass to produce materials and fuels. It also determined that research has shown that demand for wood products helps to prevent deforestation. This is because it incentivizes forestation and induces investment to improve forest productivity. This can be seen in the southern U.S. where demand for pellets has resulted in increased productivity. Regarding timing and carbon debt, the review revealed that the most important questions revolves around the net cumulative emissions of geologic carbon “That’s what needs to be taken into account,” he said. “Mitigation measures that provide the lowest long-term net emissions of geologic carbon are going to be the ones that actually count in the end.”

“While the benefits from forest-based mitigation might be delayed, any increase increased emissions are reversible and temporary, and are incurred really in the interest of limiting those long-term cumulative benefits,” Malmsheimer explained.

Finally, the proper characterization of forest biomass impacts must be made. This means that carbon debt must be properly accounted, as must the characterization of forest products actually used for energy. Malmsheimer noted that residues are used for energy. Saw timber is not because the economics simply don’t make sense. The decision making process of forest owners also needs to be incorporated into any kind of carbon accounting system.