Carbon sequestration in your own forest

So it is now widely accepted that climate change is a serious problem in the world, but we are still figuring out the details about how to fix it. One major possibility that I discussed at length in the past here at Sunshine Saved is to reduce those activities that cause climate change, especially our consumption of goods and services that burn fossil fuels. The primer that I wrote on what a given family could do can be seen here. Then there are things that we can do to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, broadly called ‘carbon sequestration’. There are currently many high tech proposals for factories that will do ‘carbon capture’, but I have yet to see one of these that has any chance of scaling up or being economically or energy efficient enough to accomplish much. I think that the current high-tech proposals will never go past ‘demonstrations’, and won’t actually help the problem. Perhaps next-generation high-tech carbon sequestration will be better. Finally there are ‘nature-based’ solutions, which is what I’ll be talking about for the rest of this post. All of these are basically about getting plants to do the work for us, to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere that won’t quickly go back into the air. One of the many reasons that I started our farm, Ferme L’eau du ruisseau, was to do something tangible towards helping out the climate change and biodiversity crises that the world is now facing. While our efforts in farming continue, it turns out that managing forests holds much more promise for fighting climate change than farming could (at least in our region). This is because the primary chemical component of all parts of a tree is in fact carbon, and forests grow a lot of trees. And where does any plant get the carbon it needs to grow? It pulls it straight out of the air.

Agriclimat conference

In November of 2023 I had the pleasure of attending a conference put on by Agriclimat, a Quebec initiative to address climate change through farms and farmers. The full day conference was put on to educate a group of farmers about how farms connect to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. It was wonderfully informative, and I took a lot of notes about the particulars, especially those that related to forests. On average, about 1/3 of each Quebec farm is forested, and in the Gatineau Hills where our properties are located, that number may more like 3/4 forested, which is about what our own properties are. So farmers in Quebec and elsewhere manage an enormous amount of forests, and everyone would like that to be good management. I’d like to share with you a bunch of the numbers about carbon and forests that I learned there. Unfortunately I don’t have the original sources of these data, but found a similar US source on forest carbon (pdf embedded below). The specific numbers between these two sources differ somewhat, but the basic story is exactly the same.

Sequestration rates.
Fact number one is that forests sequester a lot of carbon. Each hectare of forest sequesters about 1.75 tons of CO2 per year. This is for a middle aged forest with mostly 80 to 100 year old trees, which is typical of enormous swaths of southeastern Canada and the northeastern US. Very young forests (after a clearcut or other disturbance) may not take in as much CO2 in their earliest years as the individual trees are so small. And in old forests, say those around 200 years old and older, sequestration tapers off and reaches an equilibrium because the amount of carbon being sequestered matches the amount being emitted from dying trees, decomposing logs and other woody material on the forest floor. Those old forests do store an enormous amount of carbon, but the total amount doesn’t keep going up forever.

Something that was outside the scope of the conference was how different forest management practices may change those rates. If one uses really poor management, would the rate go down? With great management, would the rate go up? Looking at other types of forest outcomes, the difference between ‘managed’ and ‘unmanaged’ often seems to be about a factor of 2. Unmanaged forests produce about half as much timber as managed forests. While I don’t have definitive numbers, I imagine that it would be something roughly similar when one is managing for carbon storage – the right management may be able to roughly double the climate impact over no (or poor) management. I’ll be looking into these details further.

As a point of comparison, croplands in Quebec are on average releasing .5 tons of CO2 per hectare into the atmosphere each year. This is the opposite of sequestration, and is due to erosion, loss of soil carbon, and the fact that there is very little living plant matter making it through the winter season. Regenerative and organic farming techniques can do much better, keeping the soil living, healthy, and storing much more organic matter, but they can’t match forests. We need food and must continue to adopt great agricultural practices, but they aren’t going to solve the problem all alone.

How much total carbon and where is it?
So if a forest is sequestering close to two tons of CO2 per hectare each year, where does it all go in that forest? It turns out that there are three big pools. In that average 80 year old Quebec forest, there would be about 80 tons per hectare of living trees, the majority in the trunks, with the rest in the branches and roots. Then there would be about 25 tons per hectare of dead woody material, in logs and branches on the forest floor, as well as standing dead trees (snags). Finally, there would be about 150 tons of carbon per acre of carbon in the soil, known as ‘soil organic carbon’*** . This is in very small pieces, many of which are even microscopic. This soil carbon is integral to all of the microorganisms that live in the soil. All told, this is about 250 tons of carbon stored per hectare of forest. If that forest reaches old age (200 years or more), the total carbon storage may max out somewhere around 400 tons per hectare.

Disturbances and loss of forest carbon
So forests build up and hold a lot of carbon, but it’s not there forever. When there are major disturbances that kill a lot of trees, carbon can be released to the atmosphere. This is different from fossil fuel reserves buried deep underground, which would stay there for millions of years without our intervention. But forests are living systems that are always in flux, generally storing carbon for tens or hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands when circumstances are right. Natural disturbances that kill or damage trees and include fires, ice storms, wind events, floods, insect infestations, bacterial or fungal disease, and more. These kinds of events can kill some or even most of the trees in a given area, and when dead trees decompose, much of the carbon within them goes right back into the atmosphere. Then there are land use conversions, changing forest to other things like agricultural fields, roads, houses, etc. These generally wipe out the majority of the carbon store, and almost no other land use would be as effective at combatting climate change as maintaining forests.

A different kind of forest disturbance can actually help fight climate change. While counterintuitive, harvest/logging is a type of disturbance that can potentially fight climate change. This isn’t just any logging, but rather doing the right kinds of harvests in the right kinds of places. There are certain areas that should stay untouched, such as the few remaining old growth forests, and others that need the just right kind of management. While there are too many details to get into here, good management maintains a healthy forest and protects biodiversity, while also giving us wood products.

So how can logging help? Harvesting wood helps people to fight against climate change in two main ways. The more important of them is that using wood to meet human needs almost always uses less energy and creates less emissions than the alternative. We are going to want buildings, and packaging, and insulation, and so many more goods, and if we don’t use wood we will instead have to use more steel, concrete, plastics, or other products. If we assume that we are going to want those goods anyway, it is most often better to use wood products. There is a whole field of study called ‘lifecycle emissions’ that looks at these sorts of comparisons, and data is available out there to actually compare product by product. The second way that harvesting wood can help is with carbon storage directly in wood products. A board that goes into a house may stay there for 100 years or more, and all the carbon will stay sequestered inside that house as long as it stands. The Agriclimat conference gave a few key comparisons about these effects.

ProductSequestration time – averageTons of CO2 reduction by using one ton
wood instead of other materials
Firewood1 year.4 tons (from fossil fuel heating)
Paper products2 yearsnot available
Boards – construction lumber35 years.9 tons (from steel, concrete, etc.)
Paneling – plywood, particle board, etc.25 years.8 tons (composites, plastics, etc.)

So in reading this table, by using wood to do construction instead of steel and concrete, for every one ton of construction lumber you build with, you have almost a ton of reduced emissions as compared with making that same building with products like steel and concrete. There are of course some emissions associated with cutting trees, transporting them, cutting them into boards, etc., but this is far less than for other materials one could use. So generally, wood is good.

But one still has to take this with a grain of salt, as this is broad-scale averages and doesn’t apply in every single situation. For example, residential heating with wood. If one is taking low-quality locally harvested trees and burning them for heat in homes that would otherwise be heated using oil or propane, that is a great thing. But if instead of wood burning, you heat your home with a heat pump using clean electricity (there is a lot of hydropower in Quebec), wood burning doesn’t look so good. And when it comes to the wood pellet electricity generating plants, the massive harvesting of wood used to burn for electricity is far worse than renewables like solar and wind. There is always nuance, but using wood instead of alternative high emissions products and energy sources is a wise choice.

So how much can we actually accomplish at the Manitou?

Our own forests at the Manitou and Ferme L’eau du ruisseau add up to 144 hectares of forest of mostly middle-aged forest, so are sequestering about 250 tons of CO2 per year. How far does that forest go towards off-setting the carbon emissions of my family? Or those of my neighbours?

In 2019, the Canadian emissions per person was 15 tons CO2/year. Some of that is personal consumption, but a big portion is also each person’s share of government, industry, commercial, agriculture, shipping and the rest. As was mentioned above, each hectare of forest sequesters 1.75 tons CO2/year, which means each person needs 8 hectares of growing forests to soak up their share of emissions. Put another way, these 8 hectares would hold something like 1000 good-sized trees (25 cm diameter trunks or more) plus all the smaller trees and the understory. Each of those larger trees would then be pulling an average of 15kg of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. That really isn’t a lot for each tree, but since Canada has over 300 million hectares of forest, it really does add up.

My own family includes 2 adults and 3 small children. For the sake of argument, say that we are equal to 4 adults, or 60 tons CO2/year. So with our forests sequestering around 250 tons C02 per year, our forests will fully off-set the emissions of 4 families like my own. Making sure that this forest is cared for properly will have a bigger effect than almost anything else that our family could do in our personal lives – compared to taking less plane flights, living in a smaller more efficient house, giving up a car, etc. This is still just a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of the problem, but this is something that we can directly do, and it won’t cost us anything. Good management of our forests will even bring in a few dollars while we also accomplish a bit of greater good.

The last thing to mention is going to be about the details of doing forest management right. I’ll have much more to say about this in future posts. But the gist of it is that there is a really great balance that is achievable, where we will be able to protect our land and its biodiversity, while also sequestering carbon and producing economically valuable timber. This path isn’t necessarily an easy one since you must take all of these concerns into account at the same time, and find that sweet spot of actions to take. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Other reading

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*** Soil carbon limited by mineralization – This is completely an aside from the main story above, but it was a really interesting fact that I learned that same day of the conference and I just needed to share. This is about carbon mineralization, the process by which organic soil carbon is turned back into CO2 in the air. In the fight against climate change, we actually wish we could have much lower mineralization, to hold more carbon in the soil. It turns out that this mineralization is caused by soil micro-organisms that need both warmth and oxygen. Take away either of those, and more carbon stays in the ground. The most extreme cases are things like peat bogs – with no oxygen, there is almost no decomposition and they hold massive stores of organic materials (and therefore carbon). Cold boreal forests have higher rates of mineralization, but are still quite cool and have a ton of woody material on the surface and high percentage of carbon in the soil. As you go to temperate forests and then tropical forests, the mineralization gets faster and faster. Tropical soils therefore tend to have much lower soil organic carbon – microorganisms essentially eat it all and release it as CO2 very quickly. This also means that in the tropics, most of the carbon is actually stored in living trees and plants.

A warming climate will have an effect in Quebec on soil carbon. Warming will directly lead to more mineralization and more release of carbon from the soil to the atmosphere. As of 2020 data, the farms Agriclimat studied varied between 2.1% and 8.6% organic carbon in the top layers of soil. It is hard to quantify exactly, but those amounts will certainly go down as climate warms, giving one more headwind that we have to work against to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Getting a forestry management plan made

So it is currently winter 2024, and I now have plans to get an official forest management plan made by a professional forester this spring. I know a lot about our forest already, but what a professional forester can do is to be my guide to the commercial forestry industry and the gateway to any and all government programs that help with forest management. There tends to be very unequal knowledge between someone like me (a relatively small forest holder) and the mills and loggers that I may want to deal with. They have lots of experience about the ins and outs of the industry, and it is relatively opaque to someone like me, being that I’m outside of all of that. You can find a professional forester almost anywhere, and want to find one that is knowledgeable with your area, and one that can help you to meet your goals. We have selected Coopérative Terra Bois, one of the larger forester companies in the Outaouais region north of Ottawa. I’ve spoken to Antoine there a few times, and he seems like the kind of guy I’d like to work with.

What a forester will do is to really figure out what kind of land you have, and what kinds of trees are currently present. Though the focus is mostly just on trees, knowing about your trees actually tells you a great deal about the rest of local biodiversity. To create these maps, they use high-end mapping software and on-the-ground site visits. I spoke with Antoine about their process, and he told me that their in-person site visits can cover roughly 40 hectares (100 acres) of forest per day. If it is hard for you to imagine how much walking that is, it is probably 10 to 15 kilometres, criss-crossing back and forth over a square that is 600 meters on a side. This doesn’t let you cover ‘every inch’, but it is enough so that you should see all the different parts of a forest. They want to see all the major features of the geography, where it is wet vs. dry, rocky vs. deep soils, as well as what the actual trees look like in different areas. They take measurements of tree species, numbers, size, and health. There is a lot of forestry-specific terminology that they may use, but that is the gist of what they are measuring.

Combining that on-the-ground knowledge with everything they can see on satellite maps, they divide up a property into ‘stands’. These divisions are based mostly on differences in the trees – what species are present and how big they are. Very often the species that do well is very dependent on the geography. In our area, rocky hilltops with thin and dry soils are usually dominated by red oaks and eastern white pines, while swampy bottomlands have a lot of northern white cedar and black ash (though all the black ash in our forest have died in the last 5 years from the emerald ash borer). These stands then pick out areas that have a lot in common for their trees, and will then be treated as a group when it comes time to take any actions in the forest, like cutting trees.

Once all this work is done, you will receive a ‘forest management plan’. This includes all the information that they’ve put together about your property, as well as their recommendations about what actions you should take to manage your site. Those management recommendations will be heavily influenced by what you have told them about your goals. Do you want biodiversity or to maximize economic returns from timber cutting? Short term or long term? Hunting, hiking, birding or other recreation? Most family land-holders will actually have multiple goals that they balance out against.

Our own forest management goals are a combination of biodiversity, forest health, recreation, and timber extraction – a little bit of everything. It really is possible to do it all, but that means that you end up doing a bit less to meet each of those goals:

  • Biodiversity – Leaving variety and space for all kinds of species. Leaving some dead/dying trees, both standing and on the forest floor. Minimizing overall disturbance.
  • Forest health – Preferentially removing weak/sick/poorly formed trees. Increases the average size and health of the trees, making sure to keep a variety of tree species. Our forest is young/middle aged, and we want it to move towards an older forest with more bigger, older trees.
  • Recreation – Keeping forestry operations smaller and less intrusive. This makes it so the forest continues to always look relatively natural. Maintain trails for hiking, hunting as well as logging.
  • Economic – Cutting and selling timber. By keeping up with all the above goals, it will be a smaller return over the short term, but very solid over the longer term. Our forest will stay healthier for the decades to come, and will have more valuable trees over time (bigger, straighter, healthier, etc.). Doing a modest amount of cutting in each area every 15 to 20 years allows you to just harvest the growth, and maintain a healthy and beautiful forest.

The practicalities

So what are the economics of our forest planning? The basic costs to us is $675 per plan plus $13 per hectare. With two properties (and therefore two plans), and a total of 144 hectares (355 acres) of forest, our plans come to almost $4000. Because we are planning on doing some timber harvests, we should make up that investment within the first year or two. For our money, we are getting:

  • Much greater knowledge about our forest
  • Access to Quebec government forestry programs (subsidies of various sorts)
  • Access to the foresters’ future help on making timber sales (marking trees, marketing wood, finding reliable loggers, etc.)

The amount of return that one can expect from trees is like anything else in agriculture or land management – not much on a small scale, but it adds up as you go to bigger scale. If you are looking to sell living standing trees ‘on the stump’, that is called stumpage. In our area, that value ends up being something between $10 and $40 per acre per year of value. With a hundred acres and cuts only every 15 or 20 years, that can be tens of thousands of dollars coming in with each timber cut. If you do some of the work yourself, you then get to keep some or all of the money that would have gone to the logger. If you go on to process and sell the wood yourself (e.g., firewood), you could get more again. Of course all these other steps take time, equipment and knowledge to do. Those who do this kind of forestry work generally end up with something between $15 and $40 an hour for their time after expenses – you can make some money but you don’t get rich working in the woods.

Resources

If you aren’t in my area, your region should have comparable groups at province/state/federal levels, and many areas will have forest owner or ‘woodlot’ associations. Do some research and asking around, and you should be able to find out what resources are locally available.

A new year, and coming back to Sunshine Saved…

As I write this, it is mid-January 2024. Sunshine Saved has been quite neglected for the last couple of years. Writing the kind of posts and articles that I do here had been pushed to the side by the pressures of raising 3 little kids and starting our direct-market ecologically minded farm, Ferme L’eau du ruisseau. But now I find myself in a place where my time is beginning to open up again – the kids are a bit older, the pandemic is fully in the rear-view mirror, and my business partner Paul at the farm has been able to take over many of my day-to-day tasks there. It is time to come back to Sunshine Saved. I have a few things that I plan to really focus on in the next year or so:

  • Doing more rural building/off-grid consulting work. I work with a couple clients per year on their rural builds, and find it is really rewarding to help others to realize their dream homes and homesteads.
  • Forest management. One of the very best things that an individual landowner can do is to take good care of their forests. Yes, our forest would get by fine without me, but there is a lot that we can do to protect and encourage biodiversity, sequester more carbon, and get some useful human products too. First up is working with a professional forester on a revamped management plan for our farms, and then it will be time to get out there to do some work in the woods. I’ll chronicle as much of that as possible here.
  • Bringing research/education/communication about the interface between nature, land management, rural economies and development to our farm. Nature can’t just be something ‘out there’, we need to stay connected to it. We would like to do more workshops, classes, research projects and more at the farm. We are in early talks with research and educational partners, and we’ll see what collaborations we can put together.

My girls picking some apples at the farm in the summer of 2023.