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Forest Carbon Benefits, Confusions, and Timber Market Implications

Forest products, whether evaluated from the perspective of embodied carbon or nature based solutions, could be viewed as an economic development “super food” that meets human needs with fewer environmental consequences.

Forest products outperform other building materials in their ability to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions for multiple reasons. One, wood products sequester carbon, creating, in effect, another carbon sink in standing buildings. Two, wood products closely resemble their original form. Lumber, with its simple saw and sand process, bypasses the mining, metallurgic, and energy intensive steps required for steel and concrete. Third, the manufacturing processes for lumber and other forest products consume many of their own byproducts for energy, which reduces the need for fossil fuels.

Forest Carbon Confusions

The quantifying and pricing of forest carbon remains an elusive practice for timberland owners and serious reporters. The number of follow-up questions I get from those studying and participating in carbon markets reinforce a skepticism associated with the tiresome subjectivity common with certain forest certification schemes. More concerning, however, is the confusion associated with basic definitions.

Forest owners and consultants consistently mix their estimates of CO2 capture and emissions with the carbon content sequestered by the trees they grow and manage.[1] For example, carbon itself accounts for about 50% of the dry weight of wood. However, a standing loblolly pine tree averages a moisture content exceeding 70% (meaning that the weight of completely dry loblolly pine wood would be about 70% more when green or freshly harvested). Thus, the carbon content of a standing, living pine tree is closer to 30% carbon or less.

In addition, carbon content gets confused with CO2. Equating one ton of carbon requires 3.67 tons of CO2, which comprises one part carbon and two parts oxygen. [It’s a little like asking, “how many pounds of granola do you need to sift out one pound of nuts?”]

Timber Market Implications

Timber markets manifest a set of forest supply and wood demand cycles that reflect the needs of wood-users and timberland owners. In the current marketplace, the role of forest carbon as a change agent varies, if relevant, depending on its price versus local timber revenues.

In Timber Market Analysis (TMA), we teach a set of tools to aggregate data, conduct analysis, and communicate results and recommendations. This process evolved through hundreds of engagements and research studies. To date, the role of forest carbon has been minimal as a driver of locating capital investment in wood-using manufacturing facilities. Rather, we observe forest carbon as an incentive to increase investment and exposure in investment portfolios to the forest industry, which looks to benefit from growing its share of construction and building material markets moving forward and regardless economic conditions.

Interested in learning a process for tracking and analyzing the price, demand, supply and competitive dynamics of local timber markets and wood baskets? Register here for Forisk’s 2022 “Timber Market Analysis” class, offered virtually via Live Zoom on November 16th and 17th. Early registration ends November 2nd


[1] This is consistent with an observation from Dovetail Partners in their concise and helpful 2013 primer, “Carbon in Wood Products – The Basics.” Available at: https://dovetailinc.org/land_use_pdfs/carbon_in_wood_products.pdf

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