Feature

The wood product and carbon connection

Aurora Cutler, Alexa Dugan, and Duncan McKinley
Office of Sustainability and Climate, USDA Forest Service
October 7th, 2019 at 12:14PM
This graphic illustrates the open cycle of fossil fuel emissions to the atmosphere and the biogenic, closed loop of forest carbon in the atmosphere.
This graphic illustrates the open cycle of fossil fuel emissions to the atmosphere and the biogenic, closed loop of forest carbon in the atmosphere. (USDA Forest Service graphic)

 

When we think of a renewable resource, the first thing that usually pops in our head are the solar panels on our neighbor’s roof or perhaps the water that flows from the mountains. Rarely does a stand of trees root in our idea of a renewable resource.

But the cycle of seed, plant, grow, and harvest makes trees a natural renewable resource and this is something we, at the USDA Forest Service, would like everyone to know. This is because while trees grow in the forest, they store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their trunks, branches, stems, leaves, roots and soil.

So, when trees are sustainably harvested, wood continues to store carbon in the thousands of products we use every day, from paper products to lumber to energy generation. Trees then regrow, repeating the cycle.

To better understand how trees and wood products store and cycle carbon, let’s pretend we are the atmosphere — the landlord — and carbon emissions are our tenants. We want some carbon tenants — they help us pay our mortgage and keep our house a comfortable temperature, much like the greenhouse effect. And these biogenic carbon tenants benefit the Earth by regulating temperatures.

But when people use fossil fuels like oil and coal, they send us far too many carbon tenants who squat permanently in our home and change the balance we previously had. This happens because we — the atmosphere — have no way of evicting or escorting them back from where they came, deep within the Earth.

A wood deck stores carbon while the nearby forest sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.
A wood deck stores carbon while the nearby forest sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. (Copyright S_Photo Shutterstock)

They are called “fossil” for a reason — they took millions of years to be stored in the Earth, under conditions Earth may never experience again. These freeloading, fossil fuel carbon tenants overcrowd and trash our once balanced and clean atmospheric home, trap excess heat, and influence the Earth’s climate.

Whereas, if the only carbon emissions humans sent to the atmosphere were derived through decomposition or burning of wood and vegetation, sure we would always have some tenants, but they would be naturally cycling into new vegetation growth and not permanently controlling the dial of our thermostat, like the fossil fuel squatters. These biogenic carbon emissions would stay only the duration of their short-term contracts, and politely leave over time as the regenerating forest calls them back.

When people use wood-based products in place of fossil fuel-intensive products — like steel, concrete, or plastic — there is a permanent benefit to our atmospheric home. For instance, buildings framed in wood release 26 percent less carbon than steel-framed buildings and 31 percent less than concrete-framed buildings. Similarly, when people install wood floors instead of vinyl flooring, carbon emissions can be as much as 20 times lower.   

Simply put, by building with wood, we’re opting to store additional carbon in everyday products and buildings. If a wood house stands for 150 years, it will store carbon until it decays or is replaced. In that time, the forest will have regrown resulting in additional carbon storage.

Using renewable wood products is like choosing a few clean, respectful tenants who stay for the duration of the lease, instead of hundreds of unwelcome tenants who never move out.

Obviously the atmosphere is not just a hypothetical landlord, it’s a critical part of what makes Earth livable, holding the air we breathe and regulating the temperature of the planet. Every product we choose has a carbon consequence on our home. When we choose wood, we keep our home clean, support forests, and invest in long-term climate solutions.