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Sustainable Boreal Forest Management – Challenges and Opportunities for Climate Change Mitigation

Boreal Forest


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Report from an Insight Process conducted by a team appointed by the International Boreal Forest Research Association (IBFRA)

Can the forest sector mitigate climate change through capture of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and the subsequent use of wood products?

We assembled experts mainly from the member countries of the International Boreal Forest Research Association (IBFRA) to synthesize information from boreal forests in Alaska (USA), Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia on the carbon (C) stock in living tree biomass during the period 1990 to 2017. Thus, we compared C stock changes in tree biomass among boreal forests with a low intensity of forest management in Alaska, Canada and Russia, with a much higher intensity of forest management in Norway, Sweden and Finland (where rotational forestry involving clear-felling and replanting or reseeding is practiced on a large portion of the area). The lack of comparable high-quality data from the larger countries and differences in national definitions of managed forests impedes a strict comparison between unmanaged and managed forests across the boreal biome.

Intensive forestry in the Nordic countries has been associated with rising C stock in the biomass of trees, which has doubled in the last century including an increase by 35 % between 1990 and 2017. The rising C stock in these forests occurred while cumulative harvests removed the equivalent of half of the original C in the initial stock in 1990. In boreal forests in Canada and Russia, the stocks of C in living trees showed no major changes. In these large countries, a lower percentage of the forest area was harvested annually as compared to the Nordic countries, but forest fires affected a much higher portion of the area. The area affected by fires was around 0.5 – 0.6 % per year in Alaska, Canada and Russia, which compares with around 0.01 % in the Nordic countries, a difference by a factor 50 – 60. Regarding soils, all countries report modest increases in C in mineral soils over the period, with greater increases in the Nordic countries as compared to Canada and Russia. Peat soils on drained fertile soils were large sources of emissions of greenhouse gases in Finland and Sweden.

We conclude that intensively managed forests on upland (mineral) soils have shown strong net uptake of C from the atmosphere by accumulating C in trees, soils and forest products. In countries with less intense management (Canada and Russia), where a lower percentage of the area is harvested annually, the uptake of C from the atmosphere has been matched by wood harvests and C releases back to the atmosphere (including from large forest fires); i.e. the C stock in living tree biomass has not changed. In Alaska, where forestry is not practiced in the boreal forests, there has been a net loss of C mainly through fires.

Forestry can obviously provide climate benefits from increased C stocks in forests (in trees, other plants, dead wood and soils), from C stored in long-lasting wood products and by substitution of wood for fossil fuel products and products associated with large emissions of CO2, for example concrete. We recommend further quantification of the opportunities for boreal forest management to maintain and increase forest carbon sinks. Examples include empirical studies on forest management regimes with thinnings in Canada and Russia and on mixed-stands vs. single-species stands and on continuous-cover forestry in comparison to rotation forestry across the boreal forests.

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