Watch This: USDA Secretary Discusses Climate Change, Sustainability

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) to discuss climate change and sustainability practices.

Vilsack and fellow panelists detailed efforts by the USDA and other organizations to increase sustainable crop and animal production and decrease greenhouse gas emissions and food waste on a domestic, as well as international, scale. He also reviewed recent innovations in sustainable building construction across the United States and around the globe.

Vilsack spoke about goals like reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 and planting 100,000 trees throughout urban areas in the coming years. The USDA expects the incorporation of more trees in these areas will lead to lower crime rates and energy costs and increased property value.

The Secretary focused on recent accomplishments in green building practices through the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other forest products. According to Vilsack, construction of CLT buildings such as the high rises in New York City and Portland, Oregon, provide timber industries opportunities for growth.

CLT has been studied here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) from many angles, including fire performance, possibilities for use in earthquake-prone regions, and the effects of moisture on CLT.

FPL researchers also played a role in the development of the U.S. CLT Handbook, which provides technical information for the design, construction, and implementation of CLT systems and illustrates applications adapted to current codes and standards.

“[CLT] is going to change the face and appearance of landscapes across the U.S.,” Vilsack said. “It’s going to create jobs in rural areas, and it’s helping to fuel, already, the decline in unemployment in rural areas.”

Vilsack discussed the benefits of building with CLT with Weyerhaeuser Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Timothy Punke.

Punke said in an attempt to “keep working forests as forests”, it’s important to make sure there is a market for forest products. In this way, sustainable building construction can help conserve forests.

Building with wood also uses less energy.  According to Punke, wood creates 26 percent less greenhouse gases than steel and 31percent less emissions than concrete.  Construction with wood also stores carbon in the wood, thus continuing the  cycle that keeps forests breathing. Punke mentioned the introduction of the Timber Innovation Act, which was proposed to accelerate research and development of buildings made of wood.

Other topics Vilsack discussed include renewable energy conservation efforts, drought adaptation strategies, and sustainable production of animal feed.  To learn more about what was discussed at the panel, see it for yourself:

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta

New Research Shows Markets and Timing Matter When Accounting for Biogenic Carbon

The Society of American Foresters (SAF) has published “Forest Carbon Accounting Considerations in US Bioenergy Policy” in the Journal of Forestry. The article, which was authored by an SAF-sponsored team comprised of some of the US’s leading forest carbon experts (including FPL Research Forester Ken Skog), identifies and examines scientific-based insights essential to understanding forest bioenergy and “carbon debts.”


FPL’s Ken Skog is an author on the Journal of Forestry article.

As noted by Reid Miner, the lead author and chair of the SAF team, the article’s insights, which are built on a comprehensive review of the most current literature, illustrate why quantifying the full spectrum of forest-based activities is critical when accounting for biogenic carbon and carbon dioxide, and why policymakers should consider that:

– Even while the greenhouse-gas benefits of sustainable forest biomass energy are sometimes delayed, it is well established that these benefits are substantial over the long term.

– The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that peak global temperature is likely to be determined by long-term cumulative CO2 emissions, and that forest-based energy and products help limit cumulative CO2 emissions.

– An accurate comparison of the carbon impacts of forest biomass energy with those of other energy sources requires the use of consistent timeframes in the comparison.

– Landowner responses to increased wood demand can have a significant influence on the carbon impacts of forest biomass energy.

The release of this article comes as a number of groups await the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Accounting Framework for Biogenic Carbon Emissions, following a three-year deferral to examine the issue. Dr. Roger Sedjo, a member of both the SAF team and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) said, “I was concerned about the complexity of the SAB recommendations that resulted from our discussions, and was also uncertain whether the SAB process captured the importance of market dynamics, including the effects of markets on forest investment levels. The magnitude and timing of benefits from use of forest bioenergy depends upon availability of markets for wood products. This article clearly shows how influential markets are as we consider how forest biomass factors into our energy future.” Sedjo also noted that timing of carbon benefits is often misrepresented in current literature—something that is also addressed in this article.

University of Washington scientist Dr. Elaine Oneil added, “In the West, reducing forest biomass density is an effective means of stemming the threat of large-scale intensive wildfires. Generally, the non-merchantable residues from thinning projects are burned on site to reduce fire risk and improve forest health. Utilizing residues to produce biomass energy, instead of burning them in the forest, returns carbon to the atmosphere at the same time as burning residues on site without energy recovery, so the net impact of energy production on biogenic carbon emissions is essentially zero and the benefits from using residues for energy are immediate. However, these benefits are not possible without markets for these residues.”

North Carolina State Professor Dr. Robert Abt was impressed by the SAF team’s work, which represents different disciplines and regions of the country. “The study provides a comprehensive review of the science surrounding wood bioenergy and carbon emissions. Unlike many discussions, it recognizes the economic relationships among wood bioenergy uses, forest harvests, and forest investments by providing a review of both the theoretical rationale and the empirical evidence of the effect of an increase in wood demand on forest carbon. The literature demonstrates that increased demand for wood bioenergy can lead not only to increased harvests, but also to increased forest investments, which provide offsetting forest growth and associated offsetting increases in forest carbon.”