Forests and forest products can significantly contribute to climate change mitigation by stabilizing and even potentially decreasing the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Harvested wood products (HWP) represent a common widespread and cost-efficient opportunity for negative emissions. After harvest, a significant fraction of the wood remains stored in HWPs for a period that can vary from some months to many decades, whereas atmospheric carbon (C) is immediately sequestered by vegetation re-growth. This temporal mismatch between oxidation of HWPs and C uptake by vegetation generates a net sink that lasts over time. The role of temporary carbon storage in forest products has been analysed and debated in the scientific literature, but detailed bottom-up studies mapping the fate of harvested materials and quantifying the associated emission profiles at national scales are rare. In this work, we quantify the net CO2 emissions and the temporary carbon storage in forest products in Norway, Sweden and Finland for the period 1960–2015, and investigate their correlation. We use a Chi square probability distribution to model the oxidation rate of C over time in HWPs, taking into consideration specific half-lives of each category of products. We model the forest regrowth and estimate the time-distributed C removal. We also integrate the specific HWP flows with an emission inventory database to quantify the associated life-cycle emissions of fossil CO2, CH4 and N2O.
We find that assuming an instantaneous oxidation of HWPs would overestimate emissions of about 1.18 billion t CO2 (cumulative values for the three countries over the period 1960–2015).We also find that about 40 years after 1960, the starting year of our analysis, are sufficient to detect signs of negative emissions. The total amount of net CO2 emissions achieved in 2015 are about - 3.8 million t CO2, - 27.9 t CO2 and - 43.6 t CO2 in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, respectively.
We argue for a more explicit accounting of the actual emission rates from HWPs in carbon balance studies and climate impact analysis of forestry systems and products, and a more transparent inclusion of the potential of HWP as negative emissions in perspective studies and scenarios. Simply assuming that all harvested carbon is instantaneously oxidized can lead to large biases and ultimately overlook the benefits of negative emissions of HWPs.