Posted by: Dave Neads | April 29, 2008

Beetle Kill, Biofuels and CO2 Emissions

The journal Nature, April 24, 2008 issue, published an article on the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic and carbon feedback to climate change.  This paper has received a great deal of media attention and is  an excellent source of statistics.  It concludes that nearly a billion tonnes of CO2 will be released into the atmosphere over the 21 year period of the attack, death and partial decay of beetle-killed trees. This is a lot of CO2, as much as all of Canada emitted in 2005.

The question though is, as always, what is an appropriate response to this new information?  How should we assess it in terms of our carbon emissions?

The report finds that with wildfires and non-beetle harvest included, the unattacked healthy forest modeled as the control in the analysis is a net carbon sink overall, even with the huge fires of 2004. So this research clearly demonstrates that logging to control wildfires is an unnecessary and inappropriate response which will only increase CO2 emissions.

The analysis also shows that clearcut logging to address the MPB increases CO2 emissions beyond the release in the natural processes of decay.

On the forest products side, the assumption is made that “Harvesting results in a loss of carbon from the ecosystem, but only some of that carbon is emitted into the atmosphere; the remainder is stored in wood products and landfills.”

Let’s take a look at that. Typical breakdown of the wood that is taken to the mills for processing is 45% forest products, 35% chips, and 20% hog fuel. This means that 55% of the wood that goes to town has its carbon released as CO2 in the short term, obviously more than “some”.

Secondly, when the forest that is logged is burned for electricity, over 95 % of the wood that goes to town has its carbon converted to CO2.  This is a two-fold increase in CO2 emissions over the current mix of product and chips/hog fuel. These relationships  hold whether you are considering Beetle harvest or pre uplift harvest.  The beetle uplift harvest of course puts more CO2 into the atmosphere in proportion to the increased amount logged.

Yes the numbers are significant.  My point is that logging makes them more significant and logging to burn for electricity is the most damaging of all.

We can’t do anything about the beetle-killed trees.  But we can decide to reduce emissions to the lowest possible level by adopting a selection-only logging system, and by refusing to burn trees for electricity.

When it comes to Biofuels, by all means replace beehive burners and use the processing waste to generate electricity.

However, to log and bring trees to town to produce electricity cannot be justified under any mitigation/adaptation scenario whatsoever, especially when it is understood that a beetle-altered forest is not a dead forest.

The picture below shows a > 50% attacked stand just behind our home on the ridge.  The attack is over, taking three years to run its course. You can see there is last year’s red attack, and the previous year’s grey along with numerous green, healthy trees.

This forest is not dead.


  1. I think there are points in this interview that address some of the problems and possibilities in managing forests, biodiversity and energy:

    An interview with Dr. Andrew Mitchell of the Global Canopy Program:
    Markets could save rainforests
    Rhett A. Butler,
    August 18, 2008

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