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Managing Forests because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy

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The United States needs many different types of forests: some managed for wood products plus other benefits, and some managed for nonconsumptive uses and benefits. The objective of reducing global greenhouse gases (GHG) requires increasing carbon storage in pools other than the atmosphere. Growing more forests and keeping forests as forests are only part of the solution, because focusing solely on the sequestration benefits of the forests misses the important (and substantial) carbon storage and substitution GHG benefits of harvested forest products, as well as other benefits of active forest management.

Forests and global climate are closely linked in terms of carbon storage and releases, water fluxes from the soil and into the atmosphere, and solar energy capture. Understanding how carbon dynamics are affected by stand age, density, and management and will evolve with climate change is fundamental to exploiting the capacity for sustainably managed forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For example, even though temperate forests continue to be carbon sinks, in western North America forest fires and tree mortality from insects are converting some forests into net carbon sources.

Expanding forest biomass use for biofuels and energy generation will compete with traditional forest products, but it may also produce benefits through competition and market efficiency. Short-rotation woody crops, as well as landowners' preferences—based on investment-return expectations and environmental considerations, both of which will be affected by energy and environmental policies—have the potential to increase biomass supply.

Unlike metals, concrete, and plastic, forest products store atmospheric carbon and have low embodied energy (the amount of energy it takes to make products), so there is a substitution effect when wood is used in place of other building materials. Wood used for energy production also provides substitution benefits by reducing the flow of fossil fuel‐based carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

The value of carbon credits generated by forest carbon offset projects differs dramatically, depending on the sets of carbon pools allowed by the protocol and baseline employed. The costs associated with establishing and maintaining offset projects depend largely on the protocols' specifics. Measurement challenges and relatively high transaction costs needed for forest carbon offsets warrant consideration of other policies that promote climate benefits from forests and forest products but do not require project-specific accounting.

Policies can foster changes in forest management and product manufacture that reduce carbon emissions over time while maintaining forests for environmental and societal benefits. US policymakers should take to heart the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fourth Assessment Report when it concluded that “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.” A rational energy and environmental policy framework must be based on the premise that atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are increasing primarily because of the addition of geologic fossil fuel‐based carbon into the carbon cycle. Forest carbon policy that builds on the scientific information summarized in this article can be a significant and important part of a comprehensive energy policy that provides for energy independence and carbon benefits while simultaneously providing clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation, and other uses and values.

Keywords: bioenergy; building products substitution; carbon accounting; carbon offsets; forest carbon dynamics; forest management; forest policy; life cycle assessment

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2011-10-01

More about this publication?
  • The Journal of Forestry is the most widely circulated scholarly forestry journal in the world. In print since 1902, the Journal has received several national awards for excellence. The mission of the Journal of Forestry is to advance the profession of forestry by keeping forest management professionals informed about significant developments and ideas in the many facets of forestry: economics, education and communication, entomology and pathology, fire, forest ecology, geospatial technologies, history, international forestry, measurements, policy, recreation, silviculture, social sciences, soils and hydrology, urban and community forestry, utilization and engineering, and wildlife management. The Journal is published bimonthly: January, March, May, July, September, and November.

    2015 Impact Factor: 1.476
    Ranking: 22 of 66 in forestry

    Average time from submission to first decision: 39.6 days*
    June 1, 2016 to Feb. 28, 2017

    Also published by SAF:
    Forest Science
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