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Clearcutting Our Carbon Accounts: How the Timber Industry Shields its Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Public Scrutiny

Imagine you are in the 6th grade, and your teacher has told you everyone must get a C average or above, or they will fail her class. Everyone in the class dutifully works hard to get an A, except one person, who ignores all the rules and consistently gets Ds and Fs. At the end of the year, this student passes. Flabbergasted, the other students who tried so hard to get high grades ask why. The teacher tells them that everyone’s grades were averaged together, and so the bad student benefited from everyone’s extra hard work and was allowed to pass, while the good students saw their grades go down.  Sound fair? Of course not.

Yet that is exactly what is now happening in the forest sector globally. A flawed methodology developed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the international level to calculate greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the forest sector and adopted by countries around the world allows the timber industry—the bad actor– to shield its global warming pollution from public scrutiny by taking credit for carbon sequestered on lands it did not protect. Practices such as clearcutting, conversion of native forests into tree plantations, construction of logging roads and application of carbon-intensive pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers release significant greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere. Yet the timber industry claims that the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests conserved at great cost by non-profits, by small landowners and held in trust by public lands exceeds what the timber industry emits and therefore the net emissions from what they call the “forestry sector” are zero.

Because of this accounting trick, greenhouse gas emissions from the timber industry in Oregon and elsewhere around the world have not been tracked and evaluated since 2002 and are ignored by climate policy makers. Instead, the State (in its Roadmap to 2020) merely assumes that “Oregon’s forests are a carbon sink, capturing more carbon than they release. As such, Oregon’s forests and its forest sector have and will continue to contribute to the goal of achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by remaining a robust and sustainable sector in Oregon.” Adding insult to injury, industrial forest practices are undermining goals for climate adaptation by keeping millions of acres of forestland in a high-risk condition for wildfire, landslides, disease and pest outbreaks while contributing to thermal pollution deadly to coldwater fisheries.

What does this mean for Oregon? It means that a state, which prides itself on being one of the greenest in the country, is actually responsible for uncounted greenhouse gas emissions of roughly 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. This is no small number. It is equivalent to the emissions of seven coal-fired power plants the size of the one operating in Boardman. This represents the second largest source of emissions for the State and 32% of the total emissions from all other sectors. The Oregon Global Warming Commission and other agencies are required to monitor and evaluate these emissions by law, but have failed to do so. By failing to reign in industrial forestland emissions Oregon won’t have a prayer of meeting its emissions reduction targets for 2020 and beyond.

There are several remedies the Commission and its counterparts in other states and across the world need to implement. First, emissions from industrial forest practices need to be tracked and evaluated just as they are from any other industrial activity. This means separating out industrial forestry emissions from others in the so-called forest sector – namely, small landowners, non-profits, and public agencies. This way timber industry emissions will have nowhere to hide.

Secondly, alternatives to clearcutting, short rotations, tree plantations and chemicals should be dramatically scaled up by direct regulation or economic incentives. These practices should be the rule not the exception. Third, commercial timber production should cease on public lands since these are the only lands ostensibly controlled by democratic processes and standards that require state and federal agencies to maximize public, not corporate benefits. Public forests should be managed for public resource values, carbon storage included.

And finally, tax loopholes that encourage carbon intensive forest practices should be closed. In Oregon and other states, the timber industry receives a 90% property tax break on its lands regardless of their condition. These tax breaks should not apply to logging roads and clearcuts. Instead, tax incentives should be rewired to incentivize techniques that maintain forest cover and promote the growth of large, older trees thereby bolstering carbon sequestration and storage.

Any good teacher knows holding students accountable for their own bad behavior is the only way to change it. It’s time we applied the same standard to the timber industry.

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John Talberth is the founder of Center for Sustainable Economy and currently serves as both President and Senior Economist.

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