Commercial forests can help climate change fight, UL research finds

Results challenge recent research that suggests commercial forests act only as a short-term sink of carbon dioxide
Commercial forests can help climate change fight, UL research finds

The study shows the key role afforestation can play by including new accounting of greenhouse gas mitigation achieved from future use of harvested wood. 

Commercial forests can play a vital role in the fight against climate change, according to a new study involving researchers at the University of Limerick (UL).

The results of the study challenge recent research that suggests commercial forests act only as a short-term sink of carbon dioxide.

The study involved researchers at UL’s Bernal Institute, Bangor University, Wales, and scientists in British Columbia, Canada.

It showed the key role afforestation can play by including new accounting of greenhouse gas mitigation achieved from future use of harvested wood. 

The study applied a novel, time-dependent assessment to capture the complex dynamics of carbon uptake, storage, and partial eventual release back to the atmosphere, alongside product and energy substitution by wood products, over a 100-year timeframe.

“Our goal was to undertake a really comprehensive life cycle assessment that considers the whole life cycle of carbon taken up by trees in new commercial forests,” said Eilidh Forster, a PhD student in Bangor University and lead author of the study.

Because new forests won’t be harvested for another 50 years, the standard assessment approach of applying current technology emission factors to wood value chains is inaccurate. 

"Therefore, we decided to apply projections of future technology deployment to better represent the likely long-term climate change mitigation achieved by harvested wood.” 

Her PhD supervisor, David Styles, the study’s co-author, who is a member of the Bernal Institute and lecturer in environmental engineering at UL, explained that carbon capture and storage technology is likely to be in widespread use after 2070. 

This means that new commercial forestry can be a long-term sink of CO2 from the atmosphere, even if a large share of wood is ultimately burned for bioenergy generation, he explained.

Carbon capture and storage technology works by extracting carbon dioxide from exhaust gases during energy generation and locking it away in oil and gas wells.

The study also shows that a large share of the carbon removed by afforestation is locked up for many decades in wood products, such as sawn-wood and panel boards used for construction.

“This ‘buys time’ for the successful commercial deployment of carbon capture and storage technology in the future,” explained Mr Styles.

The authors stress that whilst this evidence supports the planting of new commercial forests in temperate regions as a way to combat climate change, a range of other considerations need to be taken into account for sustainable land use planning.

However, Mr Styles adds, “planting new commercial forests is a flexible way to contribute to long-term climate stabilisation goals.”

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