Why managing BC’s forests according to regional differences increases their ability to mitigate climate change.

The way that British Columbia (BC) manages its forests and how wood from harvests is used significantly impacts the sector’s potential to mitigate climate change, according to new research supported by the PICS Forest Carbon Management Project (FCMP). 

In a new study published in the October 2020 edition of Carbon Balance and Management, researchers modelled BC’s public forests at a 1-hectare spatial resolution from 1990 to 2070, comparing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels of a business-as-usual approach to six different scenarios regarding changes in forest management and wood use. 

They found that the forest sector could reduce BC’s current annual emissions of 67.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) by up to 16 MtCO2e in 2070 by taking the following measures:

  • Increasing the amount of harvest wood that goes into long lived wood products, where carbon is sequestered for a longer time period and where it can substitute for more emission-intensive materials, such as concrete and steel in buildings
  • Stopping the burning of harvest residues and instead using some of these residues for bioenergy production and replacing fossil fuel burning
  • Reducing harvest in regions with low wildfire risks, so that forests could continue to grow and remove carbon from the atmosphere

Carolyn Smyth, the lead author and research scientist with Natural Resources Canada says their modelling work found that there wasn’t one single activity that would work everywhere, but that the greatest reduction in emissions occurs when implementing a portfolio of regionally differentiated activities.

How we implement these management activities also makes a difference – if activities are implemented at a greater scale, there will be a greater climate benefit. Timing is also important, and considerable mitigation won’t be achieved by 2050 or 2070 unless we start now and maintain these activities over time.

“This research shows that the forestry sector could contribute to BC’s legislated 2050 target of reducing GHG emissions 80% below 2007 levels.” Smyth says. “By 2050, forest management and wood use activities could contribute 9 MtCO2e a year in emissions reduction, or up to 16 MtCO2e a year by implementing activities at higher levels.”  In other words, contributing up to 30% percent of the province’s GHG reduction target. 

This study also assessed the economic implications of changes in forest management and wood use, specifically the cost of emission reductions.  With appropriate actions, BC’s forest sector would be able to contribute significantly to climate change mitigation at competitive costs (below $50/tCO2e). 

While forests have the potential to help mitigate climate change by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, they can also contribute to its acceleration by increasing emissions. For example, BC’s devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 each created several times more emissions than all of BC’s other sectors combined. As a result, wildfire risk reduction is an increasingly important part of forest management and emission reduction strategies. This study included a simple approach to determine how future fires could reverse the contribution of forest conservation projects, often called the ‘risk of reversal’, and noted that future research is this area is needed. 

This work from the FCMP is contributing to current research by another PICS initiative, the Wildfire and Carbon project, which is examining strategies that reduce net emissions from wildfires, enhance the potential for forests as carbon sinks, and creating bio-economy opportunities for wood products and bioenergy.

The research findings are published in the article Climate change mitigation in British Columbia’s forest sector: GHG reductions, costs, and environmental impacts, in the 15th volume of the journal Carbon Balance and Management 

Figure 1. Modelling climate change mitigation analyses considered the entire system: GHG emissions and removals in the forest ecosystem, emissions from wood products and bioenergy/biofuels, as well as avoiding emissions from fossil fuel burning and the use of emissions-intensive materials. Adapted from IPCC 2007, AR4 WG III, Forestry 

Figure 2. Several different mitigation activities were modelled and compared to a business-as-usual scenario.  The cumulative net change in GHG emissions (black line) for the period 2020-2070 was estimated for each of mitigation activity in each forest management unit within BC. Colours in the above chart correspond to the system components in Figure 1.