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Regional carbon dioxide implications of forest bioenergy production

Abstract

Strategies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions include substitution of fossil fuel with bioenergy from forests1, where carbon emitted is expected to be recaptured in the growth of new biomass to achieve zero net emissions2, and forest thinning to reduce wildfire emissions3. Here, we use forest inventory data to show that fire prevention measures and large-scale bioenergy harvest in US West Coast forests lead to 2–14% (46–405 Tg C) higher emissions compared with current management practices over the next 20 years. We studied 80 forest types in 19 ecoregions, and found that the current carbon sink in 16 of these ecoregions is sufficiently strong that it cannot be matched or exceeded through substitution of fossil fuels by forest bioenergy. If the sink in these ecoregions weakens below its current level by 30–60 g C m−2 yr−1 owing to insect infestations, increased fire emissions or reduced primary production, management schemes including bioenergy production may succeed in jointly reducing fire risk and carbon emissions. In the remaining three ecoregions, immediate implementation of fire prevention and biofuel policies may yield net emission savings. Hence, forest policy should consider current forest carbon balance, local forest conditions and ecosystem sustainability in establishing how to decrease emissions.

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Figure 1: Maps of US West Coast NBP and uncertainty for current and threshold conditions.
Figure 2: Life-cycle assessment carbon emission trends by ecoregion under various management scenarios.
Figure 3: Total US West Coast forest sector carbon sinks, sources and added emissions relative to BAU under various management scenarios.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Office of Science (BER), US Department of Energy (DOE, Grant no. DE-FG02-07ER64361), for the North American Carbon Program study, ‘Integrating Remote Sensing, Field Observations, and Models to Understand Disturbance and Climate Effects on the Carbon Balance of the West Coast US’. We further thank M. Harmon for discussions of wood product life-cycle assessment. T.W.H. is funded by a DOE global change education program PhD fellowship (GREF). S.L. is funded by ERC Starting Grant 242564.

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T.W.H. designed and implemented the study with guidance from B.E.L. and S.L. T.W.H., S.L. and B.E.L. co-wrote the paper and S.L. contributed to parts of the analysis. C.W. provided essential data and methods for the analysis and valuable comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tara W. Hudiburg.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hudiburg, T., Law, B., Wirth, C. et al. Regional carbon dioxide implications of forest bioenergy production. Nature Clim Change 1, 419–423 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1264

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