Expanding productive forests creates cost effective carbon sinks and reduces loss of natural forests by offsetting timber extraction

Andrew Cameron* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Working paperDiscussion paper


1. It is widely accepted that the climate is changing with historic high temperatures, wildfires, and flooding experienced in many regions of the world. Climate change mitigation strategies require a major reduction in CO2 entering the atmosphere (e.g. burning of fossil fuels, intensive agricultural systems, destruction of natural forests), and to reduce levels of CO2 already in the atmosphere (carbon capture). Expansion of productive forests remains one of the most effective strategies for removing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere in addition to producing timber on a sustainable basis.

2. It is incumbent on developed nations as the biggest emitters of carbon to increase investment in climate change mitigation strategies that include expansion of their domestic productive forest areas. Developed nations are also the biggest users of wood products (e.g. UK is the world’s second biggest importer of wood products (second only to China) importing 81% of its requirements) and increasing domestic wood production would reduce the need for imports indirectly facilitating the reduction in damage and loss of the world’s natural forests (a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions) through timber extraction offsetting (i.e. using timber output from productive forests to reduce logging damage and loss of natural forests). Many European countries are revising down their production forecasts due to climate induced damage (particularly drought stress and insect attack) raising concerns over where future imports will come from and whether production is sustainable.

3. Despite the economic and environmental importance of productive forests throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world, future expansion of productive forests has come under sustained criticism from some environmental organisations and media outlets primarily over the use of non-native species and expansion oriented towards commercial production. This report sets out why expanding productive forests is critical in terms of climate change mitigation and protection of natural forests through timber extraction offsetting.

4. Wood is a highly versatile material, ‘locks up’ carbon in long-lived structures, and can be sustainably produced in perpetuity. Wood is significantly more effective at embedding energy and has greater thermal insulation properties than alternative materials. Replacing plastic packaging with wood-based products such as paper and cardboard contributes towards climate change mitigation and reducing pollution.

5. Productive forests comprise only 3% of total global forest area yet produce one third of the world’s industrial timber. This is due to the combination of high productivity and focused activity in relatively small areas. This has the additional benefit of leaving a smaller ‘environmental footprint’ in comparison with the more expansive and damaging timber extraction from natural forests. Expansion of productive ‘plantation’ forests is not keeping pace with global timber demand with the shortfall increasingly sourced from natural and semi-natural forests that are already under severe pressure from human activity. Productive forests yield over ten times more timber on an area basis than natural forests, therefore meeting the entire current global use of industrial timber would only require 0.3 to 0.6 billion hectares of productive forest, a fraction of what would be needed from natural forests.

6. While productive forest expansion has been taking place in many countries, limiting global warming to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels (2016 Paris Climate Agreement) will require urgent mitigation strategies to be put in place including significantly increasing forest carbon sinks. Unlike environmental forests where there is little or no expectation of timber production, a significant part of greenhouse gas mitigation potential of productive forests involves locking up carbon in the harvested wood. When accounting for both forest growth and use of the wood, productive forests support up to 269% more greenhouse gas mitigation potential than newly planted broadleaf conservation forests.

7. Productive forests are also more cost effective as carbon sinks in comparison with ‘technological’ approaches to removing atmospheric carbon. Costs of planting and managing productive forests as carbon sinks has been estimated at between £3 or £4.50 per tonne of CO2 sequestered (harvested wood not included in study), whereas removing atmospheric carbon using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is estimated to cost a minimum of £50 per tonne of CO2.

8. While the use of non-native species in productive forests remains a focus of criticism among some environmental groups, the immediacy of the crisis surrounding climate change has emphasised the need to use tree species in new afforestation programmes that show greater resilience to potentially less favourable climatic conditions in the future and possible threats from novel pests and diseases.

9. New afforestation programmes should include a ‘carbon capture index’ indicating their climate change mitigation potential. Governments must ensure that productive tree planting is sufficiently incentivised to implement climate adaptation measures. Financial aid for tree planting should be scaled with carbon capture potential to encourage tree planting with the optimum mitigation value.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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