Restorative and responsible forest management can not only help solve the climate crisis, it can provide a perpetual supply of renewable materials and a base for stable employment.
While there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer as to how best to manage forests for carbon, in general:
- Older forests store more carbon and trees that are allowed to grow older sequester more carbon, so rotations (intervals between harvests) should be lengthened and harvest rates should be reduced
- Forests that are managed less intensively (e.g. smaller clearcuts, more live-tree retention, wider riparian buffers) release less carbon than forests that are managed more intensively (e.g. industrial tree farms that rely on large, frequent clearcuts and applications of GHG-emitting fertilizers)
- Forests that are managed as ecosystems rather than monocultures are more resistant to wild fire and more resilient in the face of inevitable climate change — so unnatural tree plantations should be managed toward a more natural condition
Want to better understand how climate-friendlier forestry can increase carbon storage? Here is an analogy that can help.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification provides an independent mechanism to identify and reward climate-friendlier forestry. A 2018 study shows that FSC-certified forests in Oregon and Washington not only store more carbon, over time they produce more wood.
When it comes to the carbon impacts of forestry, context is everything. If we start with…
- an old forest, protection is best
- a young and/or degraded forest, managing toward a healthier, older condition is best
- cleared or clearcut land, reforestation or afforestation is best
Business-as-usual, industrial forestry is NOT the answer when it comes to combatting climate change.
As the name suggests, forest carbon refers to all of the carbon stored in a forest, including what’s above ground in live and dead trees and other vegetation as well as carbon stored below ground in the soil and the root mass of trees.
It’s relatively straightforward to visualize how logging impacts forest carbon at the level of an individual stand:
This chart represents two different starting conditions: an old-growth forest (dark green line) and an agricultural field where afforestation occurs (light green line). In the former case, forest carbon starts high and drops steeply with the initial timber harvest. In the latter, carbon starts low and builds for several decades. The forest stand represented here is logged once every 40 years on a sustained-yield basis where tree growth and timber removals are in balance. The level of forest carbon drops with each harvest and then builds back up before the pattern repeats.
The picture gets more complicated at the landscape level where numerous stands are being managed simultaneously. Here’s an analogy to aid in understanding how in such a scenario different approaches to forest management can impair or enhance the forest’s capacity to store carbon. Visualize the managed forest as a bucket and forest carbon as the water inside it. The landscape is made up of multiple stands that have been logged at different times and are in different stages of regrowth: some are taking up carbon and some are releasing it. The challenge is to determine how all of these offsetting inputs and outputs influence what is happening to overall carbon stores – and we need to do that to figure out the differing effects of different approaches to forest management.
Carbon stores are highest in mature forests where there is little or no logging: the water level in the bucket is at or near the top. This level is never static, however. The bucket has leaks: trees and other vegetation are constantly dying and rotting, releasing some carbon into the atmosphere, but also cycling nutrients, which enhances forest productivity and carbon storage capacity. But a bucket can hold water even if it has leaks as long as water is being poured into it. At the same time that carbon is escaping from the forest, new carbon is constantly being pulled from the atmosphere into the bucket. At the landscape level, it will remain fairly constant over time. [Figure 1]
When the forest is logged, it impacts both the amount coming into the bucket and the amount leaking out, but the larger impact is on the leakiness. The more holes you have, and the bigger they are, the leakier the bucket; and the leakier the bucket, the less carbon it will store. The number of holes is related to the frequency of logging and the size of the holes is related to its intensity or severity: the large clearcuts characteristic of conventional industrial forestry can be pictured as bigger leaks and the relatively frequent harvests (i.e. short rotations) can be pictured as more numerous leaks. [Figure 2]
On the other hand, less intensive, more selective logging that occurs less frequently (i.e. longer rotations) can be pictured as smaller, less numerous ones. [Figure 3]
If trees are replanted or regenerate naturally in logged areas, they absorb carbon as they grow – more carbon flows in, less escapes and the level in the bucket gradually builds back up. But each time logging occurs, the bucket becomes more leaky and the carbon level falls back down – and the more intensive and frequent the logging, the farther it will fall and the lower the average level will be. [Figure 4]
If climate-friendlier forestry is practiced, the holes are smaller and less frequent and the bucket is less leaky. Less carbon escapes and the average level will build higher and remain so as long as the management system is continued. Forest carbon stores are significantly increased! [Figure 5]
Increasing the extent, frequency or intensity of logging cannot lead to more forest carbon being stored. Since the goal is to combat climate change by reducing emissions and removing excess carbon from the atmosphere, what matters most is whether forest management and wood use results in net increases in carbon storage. Wood use will contribute to combatting climate change only if we protect more forest and implement climate-friendlier forestry.
Most of North America’s largest timber companies are wedded to a model of intensive, industrial forestry that is far from climate friendly. Industrial forestry is a set of techniques aimed at producing as much commercially valuable timber per acre as quickly as possible, such as large-scale clearcutting, replanting trees in monocultures, and heavy applications of herbicides and fertilizers.
The amount of time between timber harvests is known in forestry terms as a rotation, and rotation length can vary significantly depending on tree species, geography and the approach to forest management. Generally speaking, industrial forestry favors shorter rotations – say 30 to 50 years in temperate regions – over longer ones.
From a purely financial perspective, short-rotation industrial forestry is understandable. Forest managers have powerful incentives to harvest timber as soon as it is merchantable, even though waiting longer can mean more timber production. This is because of the time value of money: a dollar in hand today is worth more than one earned in the future. When companies sink capital into timber, they can’t invest it elsewhere. Money invested in stocks and bonds will generate income on a regular basis; investment in trees will have to wait decades to generate a return. Capital is tied up for so long that it becomes a deterrent to allowing trees to grow older: optimal capital management and optimal carbon management are conflicting goals for so long as carbon emissions are untaxed and carbon sequestration and storage is not valued.
This is why we need to change the structure of incentives that drive industrial forestry through:
- Public policy tools such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs
- Market-based tools such as socially responsible investing and high-bar forest certification
We need to reward long-rotation, lower-impact logging if we are serious about tackling global warming: the preponderance of evidence indicates that forests managed on longer rotations sequester significantly more carbon than do those managed on shorter ones.
Conventional industrial forestry doesn’t just store less carbon; it can be a huge source of GHG emissions. This point was driven home by a 2015 study that found that the aggressive logging of Oregon’s forests since the turn of the century represented between 16% and 32% of overall emissions in the state – an amount equivalent to two to four million new cars on the road. The main reasons cited for this enormous carbon release were reduction of forest cover resulting from rapid and extensive clearcutting of carbon-dense older forests.
Much is made of the fact that wood stores carbon for the length of its life in a building, ignoring the fact the carbon embodied in wood products accounts for only a fraction of the overall carbon stored in the forest they come from – as little as third by some estimates. Of the remainder, large amounts may be released to the atmosphere when logging slash rots and soils are exposed by logging. For decades after they occur, clearcuts emit more carbon than regeneration absorbs in spite of the rapid growth rate of young trees. This is because decomposer microbes in the soil work more quickly after a stand is logged, releasing CO2 as they decompose branches, roots and other organic matter. And, the larger the openings, the faster and greater the release. When it comes to pumping large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, large-scale clearcutting of older forests may be second only to total deforestation (e.g. clearing forests for agriculture) – more even than catastrophic wildfire.
FSC certification entails annual audits of forestry operations to ensure that they meet standards that protect forest biodiversity, ancient old-growth forests, water quality, and the well-being of workers and forest-dependent peoples. While far from perfect, FSC is the best available forest certification system. And its member-based governance system provides avenues for improvement.
FSC is divided into three chambers - an environmental chamber concerned with protecting forest ecosystems, a social equity chamber concerned with workers', communities' and indigenous peoples' rights, and an economic chamber concerned with the business of managing forests and producing and selling forest products. Each chamber has equal voting rights in electing members of the board of directors and ratifying major changes to FSC’s standards.
The Sierra Club is a member of FSC’s environmental chamber, where we advocate for the highest possible environmental protections. As an example of how we work to uphold FSC's rigor, in 2018 a major US wood flooring importer's FSC certificate was caught fraudulently selling flooring as FSC certified when it was not and had its certificate suspended as the result of a Sierra Club complaint.
You can support improved forest management by buying wood and paper products that carry the FSC label. To find FSC-certified products:
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) US Certification Standards -- Still Superior to Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)
When it comes to core environmental, social, and supply chain objectives, the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification system remains superior to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the forest products industry’s competing certification system in North America.1 This is despite the FSC’s imperfections – and updates to the SFI Standards that go into effect in January, 2022.
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) United States Certification Standards
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Canadian Certification Standards
Sierra Club Activists Handbook
For advocates who want to understand the FSC rules for protecting forests in your state, see the Sierra Club Activists Handbook for FSC-certified State Forests.
The Sierra Club opposes the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
The logging industry created SFI in 1994 to pass off as ‘sustainable’ some of the most intensive and harmful industrial logging occurring in North America today. SFI approves environmentally and socially irresponsible -- and sometimes illegal -- practices including:
- Clearcutting - The average clearcut approved by SFI is the size of 90 football fields. The damage to forests, water quality, and wildlife are often permanent.
- Toxic Pollution - SFI allows excessive spraying of toxic pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides that poison fresh water, wildlife, and surrounding communities.
- Destroying Endangered Forests - SFI allows logging in old-growth forests and roadless wilderness areas.
- Converting Forests to Plantations - SFI sanctions turning natural forest into ecologically barren industrial tree farms, including the use of genetically modified trees.
- Violating Human Rights - SFI labels can be applied to products made from forests cut without consultation of Indigenous People and in violation of legal and international human rights standards.
Over two dozen leading environmental organizations, including Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and numerous other environmental groups agree that the SFI is greenwash and using the SFI brand carries a reputational risk.
The SFI has updated its suite of standards for the certification of forests and forest products, replacing the 2015-2019 standards with versions that go into effect in 2022. In releasing the revised standards, the SFI claims to have made major enhancements in critical areas like climate and biodiversity. Sierra Club has conducted an in-depth analysis of the changes, however, and finds that by and large they amount to the Same-Old Forest Industry greenwash. > LEARN MORE