Production of biofuel from forests will increase greenhouse emissions

Production of biofuel from forests will increase greenhouse emissions
Under existing forest management approaches, almost all forest lands in Oregon, Washington and California are "sequestering" carbon, or absorbing more than they release to the atmosphere. (Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University)

The largest and most comprehensive study yet done on the effect of biofuel production from West Coast forests has concluded that an emphasis on bioenergy would increase carbon dioxide emissions from these forests at least 14 percent, if the efficiency of such operations is optimal.

The findings are contrary to assumptions and some previous studies that suggest biofuels from this source would be carbon-neutral or even reduce greenhouse gas .

In this research, that wasn't true in any scenario.

The study was published today in Nature , by scientists from the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and other institutions in Germany and France. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

During the past four years, the study examined 80 forest types in 19 eco-regions in Oregon, Washington and California, ranging from temperate rainforests to semi-arid woodlands. It included both public and private lands and different approaches.

"On the West Coast, we found that projected removal and use for bioenergy in any form will release more dioxide to the atmosphere than current forest management practices," said Tara Hudiburg, a doctoral candidate at OSU and lead author on the study.

Production of biofuel from forests will increase greenhouse emissions
A complete "life cycle analysis" outlines the various ways that wood products can be used and their influence on atmospheric carbon. (Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University)

"Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest re-grows and there's also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire," Hudiburg said. "However, our research showed that the emissions from these activities proved to be more than the savings."

The only exception to this, the researchers said, was if forests in high fire-risk zones become weakened due to insect outbreaks or drought, which impairs their growth and , as well as setting the stage for major fires. It's possible some thinning for bioenergy production might result in lower emissions in such cases if several specific criteria are met, they said.

"Until now there have been a lot of misconceptions about impacts of forest thinning, fire prevention and biofuels production as it relates to carbon emissions from forests," said Beverly Law, a professor in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society and co-author of this study.

"If our ultimate goal is to reduce , producing bioenergy from forests will be counterproductive," Law said. "Some of these forest management practices may also have negative impacts on soils, biodiversity and habitat. These issues have not been thought out very fully."

The study examined thousands of forest plots with detailed data and observations, considering 27 parameters, including the role of forest fire, emissions savings from bioenergy use, wood product substitution, insect infestations, forest thinning, energy and processes needed to produce biofuels, and many others.

Production of biofuel from forests will increase greenhouse emissions
Compared to BAU, or "business as usual," all of the forest management scenarios outlined here increase carbon emissions to the atmosphere. (Graphic courtesy of Oregon State University)

It looked at four basic scenarios: "business as usual"; forest management primarily for fire prevention purposes; additional levels of harvest to prevent fire but also make such operations more economically feasible; and significant bioenergy production while contributing to fire reduction.

Compared to "business as usual" or current forest management approaches, all of the other approaches increased carbon emissions, the study found. Under the most optimal levels of efficiency, management just for fire prevention increased it 2 percent; for better economic return, 6 percent; and for higher bioenergy production, 14 percent.

"However, we don't believe that an optimal efficiency of production is actually possible in real-world conditions," Hudiburg said. "With levels of efficiency that are more realistic, we project that the use of these forests for high bioenergy production would increase 17 percent from their current level."

About 98 percent of the forests in this region are now estimated to be a carbon sink, meaning that even with existing management approaches they sequester more carbon than they release to the atmosphere.

Plans for greenhouse gas reduction call for up to 10 percent lower emissions by 2020, and forest-derived fuels are now seen as a carbon-neutral solution to reducing energy emissions, the researchers note. However, this study suggests that increases in harvest volume on the West Coast, for any reason, will instead result in average increases in emissions above current levels.

Forests capture a large portion of the carbon emitted worldwide, and some of this carbon is stored in pools such as wood and soil that can last hundreds to thousands of years, the scientists said.

"Energy policy implemented without full carbon accounting and an understanding of the underlying processes risks increasing rather than decreasing emissions," the researchers wrote in their report.

Explore further

Northwest Forest Plan has unintended benefit - carbon sequestration

More information: Paper: DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1264
Citation: Production of biofuel from forests will increase greenhouse emissions (2011, October 23) retrieved 14 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 23, 2011
Yet another case of 'damned if we do and damned if we don't.' Perhaps we should just go back to living in caves. Problem is, there are not enough caves to go around. :)

Oct 23, 2011
Why to destroy forests if we have cold fusion finding for twenty years? This all is useless - and physicists are responsible for it, too...

Oct 23, 2011
This article is very unclear, if not dishonest. It only says that the forests themselves will emit more CO2 when utilized as a biofuel source, MORE THAN the forests would otherwise. It does not say whether or not they will reduce the total amount of CO2 emitted if compared to utilizing fossil fuels. 1 star.

Oct 23, 2011
This is another misleading title from Physorg. The article gives the impression that biofuel made from forests will generate more net CO2 than fossil fuels. That is not what the study concludes -- the study concludes that most West Coast forests would sequester more CO2 under current management practices than they would if they were managed for biofuel production. The study does not consider reductions in net CO2 emmissions that result from burning biofuels instead of fossil fuels.
Why can't Physorg write more accurate titles? Are they stupid, or are they trying to be sensational?

Oct 24, 2011
There are two problems, we make the assumption that those who write for Physorg, actually know something about science, and that they are somehow not part of the "agenda" of sensationalism.
I subscribe to Physorg, so that I might find interesting studies that I can research, as well as document the propaganda effort.

Oct 24, 2011
Well then we'll not make biofuel from forests. Why not just grow hemp or other types of fast growing weed? And since there's the issue of crop vs fuel land, why not just grow it on lands that are too poor to support vegetables and cereals? Weeds tend to thrive even on poor soils.

Oct 24, 2011
Trees grow, puling carbon dioxide out of the air. Then they fall over, rot, and give off carbon dioxide and maybe other carbon compounds, including peat and oil for generations many years in the future. If humans interrupt the cycle then they accomplish only short term changes in CO2 level, effects of which are undetectable. And if humans stimulate the replenishment of forests then they are increasing both the consumption of CO2 now as well as increasing the eventual release of CO2 through rotting, burning, etc.

Oct 24, 2011
Regardless of all the spin, one fact is immutable. Burning biomass is one of the leading cause of the now permanent Asian brown cloud. Simple perform a Google search of "asian brown cloud cause" and you will find links to the plethora of research papers supporting this conclusion.

Burning biomass is demonstrably more harmful to the environment than burning fossil fuels.

Oct 25, 2011
My elderly dog often produces 'Brown Clouds', does that make him chinese?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more