Friday, October 2, 2020

How Carbon Stacks Up

Imagine the Opportunity of a Smaller Carbon Footprint


At the 2020 Pennsylvania Farm Show the Hardwoods Development Council (HDC) hosted the Pennsylvania Hardwoods exhibit. The exhibit’s theme was Imagine the Opportunities of a Smaller Carbon Footprint. The exhibit was made possible by a collaboration between the HDC and the three Pennsylvania Hardwood Utilization Groups (HUGs): Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group, Keystone Wood Products Association, and the Northern Tier Hardwood Association.

The Hardwoods exhibit featured seven educational displays, all pertaining to how implementing sustainable forestry practices and the use of hardwood products can help reduce one’s carbon footprint. This is the fourth in a series of seven articles. These articles will provide information pertaining to each of the seven themes that were displayed. One article will be provided monthly.

Article 4: How Carbon Stacks Up

By Jonathan Geyer and Dave Jackson

Many people believe that after a forest is harvested the carbon sequestering capacity of that area is reduced. This is a narrow viewpoint and does not accurately depict how the forest carbon cycle works. When looking at the forest carbon cycle it is important to take a “broad” view. A broad view of the forest carbon cycle considers a larger geographical extent, a wider range of activities, and reflects a longer time scale.

When looking at the broad view we see a net decrease in carbon dioxide emissions through sustainable harvesting and the manufacturing of wood products. This is due in part to wood products storing carbon and a vigorously growing, young forests ability to sequester more carbon dioxide than an old growth forest. It is important to take a broad view of the carbon cycle to capture the net impacts of forest management activities (figure 1).

Figure 1: Sustainable forest management and the use of forest products increases carbon sequestration over time.

A major component of the forest carbon cycle is forest products. When a hardwood forest is sustainably harvested the wood in those trees are typically made into products such as furniture, flooring, and cabinetry. The carbon within those trees is usually stored in these products for many decades and possibly even centuries (figure 2).

Figure2: Wood products store carbon safely for many decades and possibly even centuries.

There are two types of forest products: long-lived forest products such as lumber for furniture and homes, which can store carbon for centuries, and short-lived forest products, like cardboard and paper, which may store carbon for only a few months or years. Even when short-lived forest products are disposed of, the carbon may still be captured in landfills for decades. The carbon stored in forest products is released only if the product is combusted or decomposes.

Figure 3 shows two antique wooden chairs, a live edge table, and a hardwood bicycle. These wood products are currently storing carbon and will continue to do so for many years. Using both long-lived and short-lived forest products helps to not only store carbon and reduce one’s carbon footprint, but also increases the demand for sustainably managed forests.

Figure 3: These wood products are currently storing carbon and will continue to do so for many years.

Another major component of the forest carbon cycle is wood product substitution. When wood products are chosen rather than using substitutes such as plastic, aluminum, concrete, etc. less carbon is emitted into the atmosphere and more carbon is sequestered (figure 4). Manufacturing of substitute faux wood products can emit up to 137X more carbon than using real wood. Wood is the greenest building material!

Figure 4: Choosing wood products over other substitutes helps reduce carbon emissions and increases carbon storage.
Trees store carbon from the atmosphere in their wood, a process called carbon sequestration. When that wood is turned into a product like a chair, table, or framing for a house, the carbon stored in the wood cannot be released to become carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. On the other hand, manufacturing goods from plastics, metals, concrete, and glass releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Using wood from sustainably managed forests is a good choice for the environment.

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