Letter | Published:

Regional carbon dioxide implications of forest bioenergy production

Nature Climate Change volume 1, pages 419423 (2011) | Download Citation

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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    & Ethical framework for biofuels. Science 332, 540–541 (2011).

  2. 2.

    , , & Reducing CO2 emissions by substituting biomass for fossil fuels. Energy 20, 1097–1113 (1995).

  3. 3.

    & Carbon recovery rates following different wildfire risk mitigation treatments. Forest Ecol. Manag. 260, 930–937 (2010).

  4. 4.

    , , , & Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science 319, 1235–1238 (2008).

  5. 5.

    et al. Resource policy: Wood energy in America. Science 323, 1432–1433 (2009).

  6. 6.

    & Forest sector carbon management, measurement and verification, and discussion of policy related to climate change. Carbon Manag. 2, 73–84 (2011).

  7. 7.

    & Effects of silvicultural practices on carbon stores in Douglas-fir—western hemlock forests in the Pacific Northwest, USA: Results from a simulation model. Can. J. Forest Res./Rev. Can. Rech. Forest 32, 863–877 (2002).

  8. 8.

    et al. Fixing a critical climate accounting error. Science 326, 527–528 (2009).

  9. 9.

    & From renewable energy to fire risk reduction: A synthesis of biomass harvesting and utilization case studies in US forests. GCB Bioenergy 1, 211–219 (2009).

  10. 10.

    , & Efficacy of mechanical fuel treatments for reducing wildfire hazard. Forest Policy Econ. 10, 408–414 (2008).

  11. 11.

    Ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Map (scale 1:7,500,000). Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 77, 118–125 (1987).

  12. 12.

    et al. Old-growth forests as global carbon sinks. Nature 455, 213–215 (2008).

  13. 13.

    et al. Carbon dynamics of Oregon and Northern California forests and potential land-based carbon storage. Ecol. Appl. 19, 163–180 (2009).

  14. 14.

    et al. in North American Forests in the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle (eds King, A. W. et al.) (US Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, 2007).

  15. 15.

    et al. The European carbon balance: part 3: Forests. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1429–1450 (2009).

  16. 16.

    et al. Climate change impacts on forest growth and tree mortality: A data-driven modeling study in the mixed-conifer forest of the Sierra Nevada, California. Climatic Change 87, 193–213 (2008).

  17. 17.

    Temperature and tree growth. Tree Physiol. 30, 667–668 (2010).

  18. 18.

    , & Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecol. Appl. 19, 643–655 (2009).

  19. 19.

    et al. Impacts of climate change on fire regimes and carbon stocks of the U.S. Pacific Northwest. J. Geophys. Res. 116, G03037 (2011).

  20. 20.

    , & Effects on carbon storage of conversion of old-growth forests to young forests. Science 247, 699–702 (1990).

  21. 21.

    & Forest carbon storage in the northeastern United States: Net effects of harvesting frequency, post-harvest retention, and wood products. Forest Ecol. Manag. 259, 1363–1375 (2010).

  22. 22.

    & Forests for carbon sequestration or fossil fuel substitution? A sensitivity analysis. Biomass Bioenergy 13, 389–397 (1997).

  23. 23.

    , , & Assessing forest vulnerability and the potential distribution of pine beetles under current and future climate scenarios in the Interior West of the US. Forest Ecol. Manag. 262, 307–316 (2011).

  24. 24.

    et al. Widespread increase of tree mortality rates in the Western United States. Science 323, 521–524 (2009).

  25. 25.

    et al. An inventory-based analysis of Canada’s managed forest carbon dynamics, 1990 to 2008. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 2227–2244 (2011).

  26. 26.

    LANDFIRE Data Distribution Site, (US Department of Interior, Geological Survey, 2009); available at .

  27. 27.

    & Prescribed fire as a means of reducing forest carbon emissions in the western United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 1926–1932 (2010).

  28. 28.

    , , & Pyrogenic carbon emission from a large wildfire in Oregon, United States. J. Geophys. Res. 112, G04014 (2007).

  29. 29.

    , , , & Forest fire impacts on carbon uptake, storage, and emission: The role of burn severity in the Eastern Cascades, Oregon. Ecosystems 12, 1246–1267 (2009).

  30. 30.

    , , & 14 Final Report JFSP Project 98-1-9-06 (Pacific Northwest Research Station, Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory, 2006).

Download references

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, 321 Richardson Hall, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Tara W. Hudiburg
    •  & Beverly E. Law
  2. Department of Systematic Botany and Functional Biodiversity, University of Leipzig, Johannisalle 21-23, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • Christian Wirth
  3. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat en de l’Environnement, CEA CNRS UVSQ, Centre d’Etudes Ormes des Merisiers, 91191 Gif Sur Yvette, France

    • Sebastiaan Luyssaert

Authors

  1. Search for Tara W. Hudiburg in:

  2. Search for Beverly E. Law in:

  3. Search for Christian Wirth in:

  4. Search for Sebastiaan Luyssaert in:

Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tara W. Hudiburg.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1264

Further reading