Hot Air Cuts California Forests Out of Carbon Offset Program

In order for California’s proposed cap and trade system to be anything but a mockery we need to rip down the “Do Not Disturb” signs on much of California’s forests and commit ourselves to harvesting in California’s forests, even (gasp) clearcutting. Foresters and forest landowners aren’t the only ones who feel this way; the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

Last month, an out-of-state special interest group derailed the forestry portion of a provisional carbon cap and trade system aimed at lowering California greenhouse gas emissions.  You might guess that an oil company that pressured the California Air Resources Board to fold, but it was in fact a Tucson-based environmental lobby, the “Center for Biological Diversity” (CBD).

“We commend the Air Resources Board for its commitment to addressing the critical environmental questions related to forest carbon credits,” crowed a CBD spokesperson. “It’s crucial that the state not give incentives to business-as-usual clearcutting and other destructive logging practices that hurt our forests and do nothing to address the immediate impacts of climate change.”

It’s a case of the wrongheaded politically spinning a regulator, who should know better. Once again, spin consumes science, and those putatively for a healthy environment have obfuscated for their own gains. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” Tom Knudson wrote in his 2001 series, Environment, Inc., “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

For California to be part of the climate change solution, it must remove the “Do Not Disturb” sign currently on its forests. When we don’t cut here, we cut “over there,” contributing to deforestation and environmental degradation elsewhere while also increasing greenhouse emissions. (For more, see “The Illusion of Preservation.”) And it isn’t just foresters like me who think this way. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we cut more wood, and use wood in place of concrete, steel, and other wood substitutes. By cutting forests, our forests, not someone else’s forest, we can contribute to saving the world.

For many of us the climate change debate borders on incomprehensible. I’m not saying I understand it all; but some context might be helpful for discerning how forests relate to global warming.

In 1895, Svante August Arrhenius, presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” In it, he argued that thermal radiation from the sun warmed the earth’s surface during the day and as the surface cooler at night, certain gases which included CO2 and water vapor, acted as a blanket retarding the escape of heat. The idea of plates of glass in a greenhouse allowing sunlight in and trapping the heat inside worked as a metaphor for the process, hence the ‘greenhouse effect.’

The worry now is that through our use of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels; we have added too much CO2 as a result could the earth may be over-heating.

In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess scientific information concerning human-induced climate change and the options for adaptation and minimizing its effects. In 1997, representatives from around the world met in Kyoto. They passed the Kyoto Protocol which sets binding targets for 63 industrialized countries to create five per cent less of their 1990 greenhouse gas (water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone) emissions.

In 2006, California passed a law similar to Kyoto, pegging our CO2 output to 1990 levels. Now I am skeptical that reducing our CO2 output will have any meaningful results. I think planting trees in urban settings and painting roads and rooftops white are better uses for our taxes. And we need to reduce tropical deforestation by cutting more trees in temperate forests such as California. All of these actions increase the albedo, the reflectivity of objects, which is part of the models used to predict global warming.

Nevertheless, because trees soak up CO2, the California Air Resources Board adopted a program that included allowing forest management activities for which CO2 emitters could buy carbon credits. The Center for Biological Diversity contends logging practices hurt our forests and do nothing to slow climate change. As I said before, the United Nations’ IPCC disagrees.

The IPCC says deforestation and severely degrading forests accounts for 20-25% of greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC is not talking about timber harvesting regarding deforestation and degradation). It also says the best strategies to prevent degradation and deforestation are: 1) “carbon conservation,” which includes both preventing forest conversion to agricultural uses, subdivisions or other non-forest uses, as well as controlling major fires; 2) “carbon sequestration and storage,” which means expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests; and 3) “carbon substitution,” which broadly means using wood products instead of non-wood products, all of which require more fossil fuel-based energy and materials. According to the IPCC, carbon substitution (wood products over cement, steel, aluminum, plastic, to name a few) has “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.”

I’m a subject matter expert on growing wood; frankly it’s my passion. The growth and yield of forests is what forestry revolves around. Our California forests have the capacity to produce all the wood we need and export some as well, yet we import 75% of our wood. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practice Rules requiring Timber Harvesting Plans that consider water, wildlife, and other concerns.

We need to stop trying to preserve everything and pretending that it doesn’t cause a mess elsewhere just because we can’t see it. The “not in my backyard” (Nimby) mentality outsources the mess: to Brazil, to Siberia, to countries not willing to enforce environmental regulations the way California can and will.

There has been a concerted effort to restrict logging by many environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Center for Biological Diversity. If green organizations truly cared about reducing CO2, they would embrace forest management in California. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. And they would insist that we begin using wood instead of concrete, aluminum, steel, and other wood substitutes.

What can you do? Start buying sustainable California wood. At least, buy wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Write congress and tell them to push for harvesting in the national forests, rather than letting wildfires send more CO2 into the air (the California wildfires of 2001 – 2007 reportedly equaled 30 million cars on the road for a year).

Let’s stop pretending wood comes from the lumberyard.


Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1557–1568

Center for Biological Diversity Media Release, “California Withdraws Harmful ‘Carbon Credits for Clearcuts’ Forest Policy.” ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

Dekker-Robertson, Donna L. and William J. Libby. “American Forest Policy: Some Global Ethical Tradeoffs.” BioScience, Volume 48 No. 6

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Technical Paper I: Forest Sector ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

McKillop, William. George Goldman, and Susanna Laaksonen-Craig. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.” UC Berkeley, Publication 8070  ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

NASA, Earth Observatory Biography. Svante Arrhenius ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

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