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Wood is Good Again

The Nation Rediscovers Basic Biology -- with the New Carbon Credits Focus

By Barbara Coyner

Did most Americans sleep through basic biology? For years now, some building experts have staked their reputation on the “earth friendly” notion that concrete and steel are better choices for “green” building. The inconvenient truth, however, is that production of steel and concrete requires more fossil fuels than wood. As global warming research has gained traction, basic biology has gotten a second wind, and the public is learning that wood is important in carbon storage.

Carbon 101

The basic biology goes like this: Forests can either be a carbon “sink,” or a source of atmospheric carbon. Trees take in carbon dioxide for growth during photosynthesis, yet they release carbon dioxide when they die or burn.

Young forests can sequester carbon faster than old forests, but old forests can store more carbon than young ones. When trees are harvested, carbon is extracted from the forest, but not necessarily returned quickly to the atmosphere. If trees are made into wood products, a portion of the carbon remains stored for several decades in the wood products pool, or even longer in the landfill carbon pool.

Carbon Trading

Researchers like University of Idaho forest resources professor Jay O”Laughlin have studied carbon storage for years, but until global warming and climate change became buzzwords, nobody paid much attention. Politics and science danced to different tunes. With the advent of carbon credit trading, however, wood is good again. And not just for building materials.

“Payments for carbon management might sound like ‘globaloney” to some, but there”s a middle ground, and I”m very glad for that,” O”Laughlin says. “We are seeing the greening of our energy and forests have a big role to play in that.”

Carbon Markets & Forests

For O”Laughlin, current carbon markets make forest resources and management more important than ever. Not only are forests now considered key for emerging woody biomass markets, but thinning forests to take out biomass is aiding forest health and wildfire concerns, and wildfire reduction contributes to cleaner air.

Wood is again viewed as an environmentally responsible building material, because carbon can be stored in both standing structures and in demolition materials in landfills.

All this bodes well for forest management. “While trees are growing, you can get paid for carbon storage, and you can set things up to do that,” O”Laughlin says of current carbon credit markets. “It doesn”t mean you can”t harvest them later.”

Taking Action

For forest owner Dick Wittman, the good of wood has turned to action. Wittman owns managed forestlands in central Idaho, and he”s also a no-till grain farmer. Joining up with other similar producers, Wittman is already carbon trading.

“Two years ago, people thought this whole concept was abstract,” says Williams. “But there”s a place for ranchers, farmers, and forest owners. If you”re not involved, someone else will define your future. For starters, we need to rethink who we are. We”re not farmers, ranchers, and foresters, we”re resource managers. And we have a product to sell.”

Interestingly enough, Wittman”s group joined carbon trading at the behest of the Environmental Defense Fund. The group decided that both wood and no-till cultivation methods made better carbon storage options than pumping carbon down wells. Wood also beats coal as a heat and energy source because coal emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Given the expensive nature of some carbon reduction procedures, Wittman says forestry practices and no-till farming are considered the “low-hanging fruit” in carbon credit strategies. Those easy pickings are gaining more favor all the time.

“The bus has left the station,” Wittman says of carbon credit trading. “Ag and forestry were left way behind in the dust, but now we”re catching up. We”re being taken seriously.”


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