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Originally published Thursday, November 13, 2014 at 5:46 PM

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Guest: How to fight climate change by harvesting wood

Don’t just knock on wood; use it to fight global warming, writes guest columnist Bruce Lippke.

Special to The Times


THE amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased by 20 percent in the past 50 years. We must make it a global priority to reverse this trend or risk the severe consequences of climate change.

To date, our carbon-reduction efforts have been focused on finding more ways to generate energy other than burning coal or natural gas or to, at the very least, reduce the amount of carbon that is emitted when these fossil fuels are burned.

Unfortunately, that is not enough. Current data demonstrate that improving the efficiency of using fossil fuels will only slow the rate that carbon emissions are increasing. We need to stop that increase. In fact, the only way to stop the increase of greenhouse-gas emissions is to expand and employ carbon-negative technologies that take carbon out of the air.

Relying more upon solar energy to power electric utilities is one carbon negative technology when it displaces the use of fossil fuels. Another employs the sustainable harvest and use of wood from Northwest forests.

We’ve long known and accepted that forests absorb and store carbon in the trees. However, peer-reviewed research conducted by a consortium of research institutions over the last 15 years finds that sustainable forest management while using the harvested wood can be even more effective in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Data show that wood harvested at the right time in the forest lifecycle and used in building products provides a renewable and sustainable carbon-negative resource.

As trees mature, like a garden, the carbon they sequester from the atmosphere slows down, and as trees or plants die and decompose they emit the carbon back to the atmosphere. So planting a new forest results in a one-time decrease in atmospheric carbon, but not a sustained reduction year after year. In Pacific Northwest forests, lifecycle models indicate that regeneration and harvest happen every 40 to 50 years, and using the wood for building materials produces the greatest carbon benefit.

Using wood products to displace fossil-intensive product emissions while storing the carbon removed from the forest in building products is the kind of carbon-negative technology we need to reduce the risks of global warming.

Further efficiencies are captured at the end of a product’s life when the wood is recycled or burned to directly displace fossil energy. Even when disposed in a landfill, wood products sequester carbon for as long as it takes for them to decay. Modern landfills can even capture the emissions during the decay cycle and burn them for energy, displacing fossil fuels.

Analysts have often accepted the use of wood to produce ethanol as an alternative to petroleum transportation fuels while leaving out the much higher displacement of emissions from the wood used in building products. Using wood to its highest and best potential is not only good for the environment; it contributes to jobs, especially rural jobs.

Just growing trees and setting aside the forest is not enough. Sustainable forest practices and better uses of wood can efficiently reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the long term.

Bruce Lippke is a professor emeritus in the School of Environmental and Forest Science, University of Washington, and president emeritus of CORRIM, a 14-university research consortium analyzing the environmental impacts of using wood.

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