IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

9.4.1 Conceptual introduction

Terrestrial carbon dynamics are characterized by long periods of small rates of carbon uptake, interrupted by short periods of rapid and large carbon releases during disturbances or harvest. Depending on the stage of stand[1] development, individual stands are either carbon sources or carbon sinks (1m3 of wood stores ~ 0.92 tCO2)[2]. For most immature and mature stages of stand development, stands are carbon sinks. At very old ages, ecosystem carbon will either decrease or continue to increase slowly with accumulations mostly in dead organic matter and soil carbon pools. In the years following major disturbances, the losses from decay of residual dead organic matter exceed the carbon uptake by regrowth. While individual stands in a forest may be either sources or sinks, the forest carbon balance is determined by the sum of the net balance of all stands. The theoretical maximum carbon storage (saturation) in a forested landscape is attained when all stands are in old-growth state, but this rarely occurs as natural or human disturbances maintain stands of various ages within the forest.

The design of a forest sector mitigation portfolio should consider the trade-offs between increasing forest ecosystem carbon stocks and increasing the sustainable rate of harvest and transfer of carbon to meet human needs (Figure 9.3). The selection of forest sector mitigation strategies should minimize net GHG emissions throughout the forest sector and other sectors affected by these mitigation activities. For example, stopping all forest harvest would increase forest carbon stocks, but would reduce the amount of timber and fibre available to meet societal needs. Other energy-intensive materials, such as concrete, aluminium, steel, and plastics, would be required to replace wood products, resulting in higher GHG emissions (Gustavsson et al., 2006). Afforestation may affect the net GHG balance in other sectors, if for example, forest expansion reduces agricultural land area and leads to farming practices with higher emissions (e.g., more fertilizer use), conversion of land for cropland expansion elsewhere, or increased imports of agricultural products (McCarl and Schneider, 2001). The choice of system boundaries and time horizons affects the ranking of mitigation activities (Figure 9.3).

Figure 9.3

Figure 9.3: Forest sector mitigation strategies need to be assessed with regard to their impacts on carbon storage in forest ecosystems on sustainable harvest rates and on net GHG emissions across all sectors.

Forest mitigation strategies should be assessed within the framework of sustainable forest management, and with consideration of the climate impacts of changes to other processes such as albedo and the hydrological cycle (Marland et al., 2003). At present, however, few studies provide such comprehensive assessment.

For the purpose of this discussion, the options available to reduce emissions by sources and/or to increase removals by sinks in the forest sector are grouped into four general categories:

  • maintaining or increasing the forest area through reduction of deforestation and degradation and through afforestation/reforestation;
  • maintaining or increasing the stand-level carbon density (tonnes of carbon per ha) through the reduction of forest degradation and through planting, site preparation, tree improvement, fertilization, uneven-aged stand management, or other appropriate silviculture techniques;
  • maintaining or increasing the landscape-level carbon density using forest conservation, longer forest rotations, fire management, and protection against insects;
  • increasing off-site carbon stocks in wood products and enhancing product and fuel substitution using forest-derived biomass to substitute products with high fossil fuel requirements, and increasing the use of biomass-derived energy to substitute fossil fuels.

Each mitigation activity has a characteristic time sequence of actions, carbon benefits and costs (Figure 9.4). Relative to a baseline, the largest short-term gains are always achieved through mitigation activities aimed at emission avoidance (e.g., reduced deforestation or degradation, fire protection, and slash burning). But once an emission has been avoided, carbon stocks on that forest will merely be maintained or increased slightly. In contrast, the benefits from afforestation accumulate over years to decades but require up-front action and expenses. Most forest management activities aimed at enhancing sinks require up-front investments. The duration and magnitude of their carbon benefits differ by region, type of action and initial condition of the forest. In the long term, sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual yield of timber, fibre, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.

Figure 9.4

Figure 9.4: Generalized summary of forest sector options and type and timing of effects on carbon stocks and the timing of costs [3]

Reduction in fossil fuel use in forest management activities, forest nursery operations, transportation and industrial production provides additional opportunities similar to those in other sectors, but are not discussed here (e.g., see Chapter 5, Transportation). The options available in agro-forestry systems are conceptually similar to those in other parts of the forest sector and in the agricultural sector (e.g., non-CO2 GHG emission management). Mitigation using urban forestry includes increasing the carbon density in settlements, but indirect effects must also be evaluated, such as reducing heating and cooling energy use in houses and office buildings, and changing the albedo of paved parking lots and roads.

  1. ^  In this chapter, ‘stand’ refers to an area of trees of similar characteristics (e.g., species, age, stand structure or management regime) while ‘forest’ refers to a larger estate comprising many stands.
  2. ^  Assuming a specific wood density of 0.5g dry matter/cm3 and a carbon content of 0.5g C/g dry matter.