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Felled cut wood timber logs in a pile at a sawmill in Midway, BC.

Decisions over how—and where—the wood harvested from British Columbia’s forests is used will have a substantial impact on the forestry sector’s contribution to climate change mitigation, according to new research from the PICS Wildfire and Carbon project. 

In an article published in Carbon Balance and Management, the scientists quantitatively compared the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission consequences of 9 different wood utilization strategies to a business-as-usual baseline over the period 2016-2050. The mix included both inward (domestic use within Canada) and outward (export) strategies, involving a range of harvested wood products (HWPs). Emissions were estimated using a scientific model that tracked carbon flows in wood products from harvest until their release to the atmosphere.

The team found that a future pathway combining timber construction materials and transportation biofuels could contribute 34% of BC's 2050 emissions reduction target. This strategy involves increasing wood building market shares for future constructions, and shifting biomass supply from short-lived exports, such as pulp and wood pellets, to biofuel production, and mandating that these biofuels displace fossil fuels within Canada, thereby reducing domestic GHG emissions. 

Furthermore, BC’s harvested forest biomass could contribute in theory, up to four times greater emission reductions, if expanded access to foreign construction markets beyond the US is available for BC's solid, engineered and composite wood products. Achieving this on a domestic scale would not be feasible, as it would require using BC wood to build an equivalent to 10,000 Brock Commons on an annual basis. 

Brock Commons, UBC: Photos courtesy of naturallywood.com  Photographer: Brudder
Brock Commons is an 18-storey hybrid mass timber building at UBC, and annual timber constructions using BC-harvested wood in Canada had a floor area equivalent to 200 Brock Commons. Photo credit: Naturallywood.com, Brudder.

Lead author Sheng Xie explains how this research seeks to quantify and identify the carbon mitigation potentials of HWP through different biomass utilization and trade scenarios.

A declining harvest

The province has projected that BC's harvest volumes will decline over the next decades due to insect outbreaks and wildfires.

Dr. Xie says how this wood harvest is used, and where it is used, is important, and progress towards more climatically efficient utilization of forest resources is needed.

“A forest industry with a diverse product portfolio provides resilience to the province’s economy and communities,” he says. “Innovation on biofuels and high-value advanced biomaterials can also help diversify and extend the value-added chain and increase the resilience to the province’s economy and possible rejuvenation of the rural communities that depend on the forest resources.”

Read the article: Inward- versus outward-focused bioeconomy strategies for British Columbia’s forest products industry: a harvested wood products carbon storage and emission perspectiveCarbon Balance and Management, September 2021

Sheng's research was supervised by Drs. Werner Kurz and Paul McFarlane, and produced as part of the Wildfire and Carbon project with support from UBC and the Canadian Forest Service.