Global Timber Demand Fuels Carbon Emissions Surge: New Study

New research from the World Resouces Insitute has calculated the hidden emissions associated with harvesting felled trees.

Tue 11 Jul 23


New research produced by the World Resources Institute and published in Nature forecasts that timber harvesting will account for 10% of global emissions over the coming decades.

In real numbers, wood harvests send an additional 3.5 to 4.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, with Mongabay reporting that 2022 global emissions were a record 38.8 gigatons. 

The researchers note that while studies tend to estimate amounts of released carbon correctly, “the problem has been failing to account for the additional carbon forests overall would store if many were not being harvested.”

Yesterday, Wood Central reported on global experts meeting in Bonn to develop new accounting models for carbon markets.

The WRI scientists advise that many carbon approaches give the impression of low, zero or even negative greenhouse gas emissions from wood harvests.

Under current accounting models, they offset carbon losses from new harvests with carbon sequestration from the growth of broad forest areas.

However, they note this model is flawed.

“Attributing this sequestration to new harvests is inappropriate because this other forest growth would occur regardless of new harvests and typically results from agricultural abandonment, recovery from previous harvests and climate change itself.”

Consequently, most research into carbon accounting counts gross emissions annually, which assigns no value to the capacity of newly harvested forests to regrow and approach the carbon stocks of unharvested forests.

The new study suggests that global roundwood consumption “will likely grow by 54% between 2010 and 2050.”

It warns that wood harvests will cover “clear-cut equivalents” of a total area roughly the size of the U.S. land mass.

Historical and projected increases in global wood product production (million m3) between 1961 and 2050. (Image Credit: The carbon costs of global wood harvests published in Nature).

In April 2023, Wood Central reported that the World Bank forecast that total timber demand could grow four-fold by 2050, largely driven by surging softwood demand to fuel housing demand in Asia and Africa.

The research used data obtained by the UN FAO to trace the 2010 global roundwood (million m3) and its relationship between the consumption of different wood products and wood harvests. (Image Credit: The carbon costs of global wood harvests published in Nature).

While technical developments, including 3D printing, has the potential to produce “tree-free wood”, the world is struggling to supply the quantities of timber needed at scale. 

This staggering amount of wood, and tree loss, will be needed to satisfy an expected 90% growth in demand for all timber products — with paper and cardboard growing by 130%, pallets, and wood fuel, including forest biomass for energy, growing by 20% by 2050.

“These [tree] losses in the near or medium-term — in addition to long-term losses — undermine the goals of the [2015] Paris Agreement and contradict justifiable commitments many governments have made to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change,” according to the scientists.

Tim Searchinger, one of the WRI co-authors and an energy policy expert, confirmed that the enormous loss of tree cover to produce wood harvests comes in addition to ever-increasing deforestation of tropical forests and the clearing of the planet’s savannas for agriculture, extraction and development — all of which also combine to diminish carbon storage capacity.

Broken promises, dubious accounting

The continued one-two punch of global tree loss comes as world leaders pledge fruitlessly to curb deforestation while repeatedly recognizing that intact, biodiverse forests are the single most efficient means of absorbing emissions from global carbon pollution.

Last month, Wood Central reported on new research from the University of Maryland reporting that an area of tropical forest the size of Switzerland was lost in 2022 as tree losses surged.

Last month, Wood Central published the list of the top 10 countries for primary forest loss. (Data provided by World Resources Institute and Forest Watch).

It means that a political commitment to end deforestation made at COP26 by world leaders is well off track.

According to the university’s Forest Pulse, 11 soccer pitches of forest were lost every minute in 2022.

Speaking to MongabayDominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the Oregon NGO Wild Heritage, said, “Cutting down forests dumps most of the stored carbon into the atmosphere. 

“And for at least a decade [after tree felling,] clear cuts act as carbon dead zones as newly planted trees take time to jumpstart photosynthesis and carbon uptake,” he continues. 

“The luxury of time for logged forests to catch up to the carbon debt created by logging older forests is no longer possible, as the sand in the hourglass is running out to thwart increasingly severe climate impacts to nature and society.”

According to the study, nations delude themselves into thinking that wood harvests of natural forests are “carbon neutral” if done sustainably.

“By this, it’s usually meant that the quantity of wood harvested each year only matches the growth in a large forest area — sometimes [as large as] a whole country. This approach rests on the logic that if wood harvesting and tree growth cancel each [other] out, existing carbon stores remain stable.” the authors write in a supporting statement.

But that national logic needs to be revised. 

It ignores the fact that in the absence of new wood harvests, natural forests would continue growing, taking more carbon out of the air, adding, “Harvesting wood similarly makes us carbon poorer because it keeps forests from growing and storing more carbon that would otherwise wind up in the atmosphere.”

The publishers provide a way forward.

The authors provide “a plausible solution to cutting carbon costs of wood harvests whilst still meeting global timber demand.”

First, they say, natural forests needn’t be cut to provide wood. 

They point to millions of hectares of low-biodiversity “tree farms,” referred to as forests by United Nations and national policies. 

The researchers provide different scenarios to meet future demand. The first six scenarios meet the expected 2050 demand, whilst the seventh reduces demand. Dark green represents emissions at 2010 levels; light green represents ‘additional business as usual’ demand, and blue represents substitution benefit (for example, replacing carbon-dense steel and concrete building structures with mass timber, replacing gas with wood fuel. (Image Credit: The carbon costs of global wood harvests published in Nature).

These are already intensively managed as plantations and can readily produce more wood on the same land.

“Steadily increasing the yields of existing plantations by 50% over 40 years — a real possibility — would reduce global emissions by 600 million tons per year on average during this time,” they note.

“More efficiently harvesting tropical forests, where many adjacent trees are typically killed when harvesting big trees, would increase those savings by another 200 million tons.”

The scientists also highlight the carbon-neutrality flaw in burning woody biomass for energy – increasing global demand for forest harvesting.

Wood Central has previously reported on major steel and concrete manufacturers using biochar technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a promise known as additionality.

Controversially, the scientists propose that national governments invest in zero-carbon solar and wind energy instead of biomass.

This wood fuel use “if instead of growing by an estimated 20%… could decline by 40%, [then] global emissions would decline another 500 million tons,” the researchers estimate.

Wind energy is not without its detractors, with the surge in demand for wind turbines leading to an uptake of deforestation in South America as demand for balsa wood – used in the turbine blades – has attracted global attention.

The Nature study concludes: “These findings are, in a sense, good news because they imply that if people could reduce forest harvests, forest growth could do more to reduce atmospheric carbon, a potential mitigation ‘wedge’ in climate strategies.”

“What’s most intriguing about WRI’s findings,” DellaSala said, “is the notion that existing [tree] plantations with modifications can more than meet the demand for wood fibre without cutting any more primary and older forests.”

“That should be a global policy for all forested nations.”


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    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


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