December 5, 2022

Wood products mitigate less than 1% of global carbon emissions

According to new research, the world’s wood products – all paper, lumber, furniture and more – offset less than 1% of annual global carbon emissions by locking carbon into woody forms.

An analysis of 180 countries found that wood products globally offset 335 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, of which 71 million tonnes were unaccounted for by current United Nations standards. Carbon sequestration from wood products could increase by more than 100 million tonnes by 2030, depending on the level of global economic growth.

The findings provide countries with the first consistent insight into how their timber industries could offset their carbon emissions as nations look for ways to keep climate change manageable by dramatically reducing emissions.

Yet the new research also highlights how wood products represent only a small fraction of the offsets needed for all but a few timber-rich countries.

Craig Johnston, professor of forest economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Volker Radeloff, professor of forest and wildlife ecology at UW-Madison, published their findings July 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy. Sciences.

“Countries are looking for net negative issuance strategies. So it’s not just about reducing our emissions, but pursuing strategies that could have storage potential, and harvested wood products is one of those options,” says Johnston. “It’s good because you can pursue options that don’t hinder growth. The question is, can we continue to consume wood products and have climate change benefits associated with that consumption? »

To answer this question, Johnston worked with Radeloff to develop a consistent international analysis of the carbon storage potential of these products, which countries must now take into account as part of the global Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions. .

They used data on wood harvests and production of wood products from 1961 to 2015, the most recent year available, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The researchers modeled future carbon sequestration in wood products using five broad patterns of possible economic and population growth, the two factors that most affect demand for these products.

Although the production of wood products in 2015 offset less than 1% of global carbon emissions, the proportion was much higher for a handful of countries with large wood industries. Sweden’s wood products pool, for example, offset 9% of the country’s carbon emissions in 2015, which accounted for 72% of emissions from industrial sources that year.

But for most countries, including the United States, wood products mitigated a much smaller fraction of overall emissions in 2015, and that proportion is not expected to increase significantly until 2065, the researchers found. .

Current UN guidelines only allow countries to count carbon stored in wood products created from domestic timber harvests, not locally grown timber shipped overseas, or products made from timber. imported. These regulations create a gap between the actual amount of carbon stored in wood products around the world and what is officially accounted for.

In 2015, this gap amounted to 71 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the emissions of 15 million cars. If these guidelines remain unchanged, by 2065 an additional 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could go unaccounted for due to this discrepancy. But this additional unaccounted carbon does not significantly increase the proportion of global emissions offset by wood products.

Johnston and Radeloff also found that the level of carbon stored in wood products is extremely sensitive to economic conditions. Slow or negative growth could significantly reduce the amount of carbon offset by these industries.

“As wood products are made, you add to that carbon pool in the country, but those products eventually break down. There are carbon emissions today from furniture or lumber produced 50 or 75 years ago,” says Johnston. “So if we’re not producing at a rate that at least offsets those emissions, we’ll actually see that pool of carbon become a net source of emissions.”

For example, the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 transformed American wood products from a net carbon sink to a net emitter. A similar effect released millions of tons of carbon dioxide from wood products for years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Johnston and Radeloff found.

The study’s five projections for future economic growth predict that more carbon will be captured in wood products, but unforeseen economic shocks could temporarily reverse this trend for some countries.

The current study offers a chance to assess current obligations and help countries predict future emissions. The findings could also inform the next round of emissions targets and negotiations, the researchers say.

“We make this data public. The complete model for all countries, for all wood products, for all scenarios is available,” says Johnston. “Now we know what it looks like for each country with a common model and common assumptions moving forward.”