Fire Prevention and Biofuel Policies May Not Reduce Carbon Emissions


Mitigation strategies for reducing CO2 emissions include (1) substituting fossil fuels with bioenergy from forests on the assumption that emitted carbon is recaptured through new biomass growth to achieve zero net emissions, and (2) forest thinning to reduce emissions from wildfires. DOE-supported scientists from Oregon State University used forest inventory data to show that fire prevention measures and large-scale bioenergy harvest in U.S. West Coast forests will lead to 2%-14% (46-405 TgC) higher emissions over the next 20 years compared to current management practices. These results contradict some previous studies suggesting that biofuels from forests would be carbon neutral or even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The investigators studied 80 forest types in 19 ecoregions and found that the current carbon sink in 16 of these ecoregions is sufficiently strong that it cannot be matched or exceeded through substitution of fossil fuels by forest bioenergy. The only exception was forests in high fire-risk zones that become weakened due to insect outbreaks or droughts, which impairs their growth and carbon sequestration and sets the stage for major fires. In the remaining three ecoregions, immediate implementation of fire prevention and biofuel policies may yield net emission savings. The study also concluded that forest policy should consider current forest carbon balance, local forest conditions, and ecosystem sustainability in establishing how to decrease emissions.


Hudiburg, T. W., B. E. Law, C. Wirth, and S. Luyssaert. 2011. “Regional Carbon Dioxide Implications of Forest Bioenergy Production,” Nature Climate Change 1, 419-23. DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1264.