The Latest Industry Causing Controversy

Aaron Foyer
Lumberjack dancing
Courtesy of GIPHY

There’s a fierce discussion going on right now about certain products claiming to be carbon offsets, including one involving one of America’s oldest loggers. The battle is, borrowing from singer Ke$ha, going down. We’re yelling timber.

Background: Carbon offsets are growing in popularity to help reduce carbon emissions. If a company’s emissions were too difficult to fully eliminate, they could, in theory, sponsor a carbon offset project that would capture and sequester carbon dioxide instead as away to reach carbon neutrality.

  • Planting a new forest would do this, though the devil is in the details.

Enter forestry: American logger Weyerhaeuser is one of the oldest logging companies in North America. It was founded in 1904 and cuts down approximately 500,000 acres of forests every year, an area two and a half times the size of New York City.

Part of the practice of sustainable forestry is planting hundreds of millions of seedlings every year to regrow forests that have been cut down. Because of this practice, the company has been claiming it essentially acts as a giant sponge for carbon dioxide and actively promotes its Climate Solutions business unit on its website.

Yes, but: Some scientists have criticized the practice as a whole saying it’s just business as usual for loggers and not actually reducing emissions.

  • According to the Wall Street Journal, Weyerhaeuser is cutting down as many trees as ever and the offsets often allow companies to pay a relatively little price to avoid reducing their own emissions.

Meanwhile, the company’s CEO said, “I don’t think there are many companies in the world with a better environmental story than Weyerhaeuser”.

The answer? A Paul Bunyan-sized ‘it depends’

It depends on whether a forest is net-new, or simply replacing trees that have already been chopped down.

It’s also depends on what the lumber is actually used for. When used as a building material, all that carbon trapped inside the wood is effectively captured and removed from the carbon cycle. Forest products are the only major building material to have a negative carbon intensity.

Carbon emissions of various building materials
kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of product

forest product chart
Courtesy of ENERGYminute

But if wood is burned or allowed to decompose, then claims that forestry is a giant carbon sink is mostly just hot air.

Zoom out: Forestry has both been the enemy of environmentalists for decades and is sometimes the saviour for emitting companies. Sweeping generalizations about whole industries – positive or negative – don’t help solve the challenging and nuanced issues in the whole climate and energy discussion.

+Bonus infographic: Forest Products: The Only Major Building Material That Sequesters Carbon