Forests, carbon and climate change

Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mostly from humans burning fossil fuels, are contributing to warmer global temperatures and climate change. This rise in the average temperature of the land and water on Earth has contributed to melting glaciers, rising sea levels and longer wildfire seasons, among other environmental impacts.

What does this have to do with forests? It turns out the plants and trees in forests, and the wood products that come from them, can help fight climate change. Trees are great at pulling atmospheric carbon out of the air. The best part is that carbon stays locked up long after a tree is used to make buildings, furniture or hundreds of other wood products.

Storing carbon

During photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They then turn the carbon dioxide into solid carbon and store it in wood. Most of this carbon stays out of the atmosphere, even after a tree is cut down and the wood is used to build something. About half the dry weight of wood is carbon, which remains stored in wood products used to construct houses, apartments and office buildings, and helps offset carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change.

Forest Fact Break: Carbon Capture

This 90-second animated video looks at carbon capture, also called carbon sequestration. Trees pull carbon out of the air and store it. Even after a tree is made into wood products, that carbon isn’t going anywhere. This video is part of OFRI’s Forest Fact Breaks series, which uses bold animated graphics, sound effects and narration to teach about natural resource topics in a fun, easy-to-understand way.

Using wood reduces carbon footprints

Carbon storage is one reason wood is a more environmentally friendly building material than concrete and steel, which require more energy and water to produce, and also create large amounts of carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process.

Timber construction reduces the overall carbon footprint of a building project, both through carbon storage and by substituting wood for more energy-intensive materials. Replacing concrete and steel can also offset decades of carbon emissions from heating, cooling and powering the building. As advances in technology make it possible to build increasingly efficient buildings, using wood can result in a negative carbon footprint over the life of the structure.

Retaining forests is important to fighting climate change

Forests in the United States serve as a “carbon sink,” offsetting approximately 10 to 20 percent of the country’s carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This underscores the crucial role of forests in capturing and storing atmospheric carbon into the future.

The significant conversion of forestland to agriculture and urbanization – particularly rainforests in tropical regions – has affected our climate. Fortunately, Oregon has done remarkably well in protecting forests from development. The state retains 92 percent of the forest cover that was present in 1850.

One reason the amount of forestland in Oregon has remained steady is because many private landowners have an economic incentive to preserve forests for timber production. This means they’re less likely to sell forestland for development into housing or other uses. Landowners are also required by Oregon law to replant trees after a timber harvest, ensuring these forests will remain forests into the future.