To help combat climate change, cities around the world are increasingly prioritizing use of wood over carbon intensive building products like steel and concrete. As a result, demand is surging for climate-friendly mass timber products such as cross-laminated timber, or CLT, which can be used to construct buildings up to 40 stories high. Here in Oregon, while leaders have shown interest in encouraging CLT production, there is also a simultaneous and somewhat incongruous movement underway to further reduce timber harvests on Oregon’s state forests to mitigate climate change through forest carbon storage. This push for forest “carbon banks” is based on the idea that letting forests grow without human intervention keeps sequestered carbon stored in live trees and out of the atmosphere, however, there are three primary issues that limit the effectiveness of this approach.

First, forests burn, threatening lives, infrastructure and environmental goals. As we saw this past September, even our wetter, west side forests can burn savagely, releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The Labor Day fires released more CO2 into the atmosphere than Oregon’s energy and transportation sectors do in a year, which are typically the state’s biggest sources of emissions. Our forests are a great place to capture carbon but they’re not an ideal place to store it long-term.

The reality is that increased use of wood products could significantly reduce global carbon emissions. Today, 39 percent of global emissions come from commercial construction, building operations, and the production of building materials, most of which are non-sustainable. By 2060, the earth’s population is expected to reach 10 billion. The United Nations estimates that cities will need to construct or renovate an additional 2.5 trillion square feet of building space to accommodate this increase. The non-profit Architecture 2030, which works to reduce energy consumption of, and greenhouse gas emissions from, the built environment, puts this increase in demand into perspective for us—2.5 trillion square feet is equivalent to adding another New York City to the planet every month for the next 40 years.  With nearly 40 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions coming from construction and the built environment, rethinking what we build and how we build it should be a top priority in our fight against climate change. The good news? Our region is already well-positioned to be a leader in this movement.

Few places in the world grow trees as well and as sustainably as we do here in the Pacific Northwest. We have the materials, the knowledge, and the infrastructure to lead the world in advanced wood manufacturing. While timber harvest does result in some carbon emissions (as does most any human activity), in a life cycle assessment completed in Oregon and published in the Journal of Green Building last year, researchers found that more carbon is stored in CLT than is emitted to create it. If working forests are harvested on a sustainable basis, this cycle can help address climate change now and in the future and do it in a way that not only serves global environmental goals but local social and economic needs as well.

The most glaring omission from the carbon banking proposals I’ve seen to date is the failure to address what scientists refer to as carbon “leakage”; the transfer of greenhouse gas emissions from one place to another after implementation of emission reduction policies. The world needs wood. Lots of it.  With increasing demand for housing and wood products, I guarantee that if we don’t grow and manufacture wood products here, it will happen somewhere else and likely in places with weaker environmental standards.  To date, forest carbon banking proposals for Oregon forests have failed to address the effectiveness of local policies in a globalized economy. Today almost 40% of softwood lumber used in the U.S. comes from foreign countries because we have locked up our federal forests and we are increasingly handicapping state and private forests.

We need to take action on climate change but how we act matters a great deal. Policies can be counterproductive if people presume such actions occur in a vacuum. With forest policy, there are unintended consequences and trade-offs. Further reducing sustainable timber harvests increases hardships but it also reduces opportunities.  If the state wants to make a real difference in the fight against climate change, let’s start talking about support for local wood production.