• Open Access

Carbon debt and carbon sequestration parity in forest bioenergy production



The capacity for forests to aid in climate change mitigation efforts is substantial but will ultimately depend on their management. If forests remain unharvested, they can further mitigate the increases in atmospheric CO2 that result from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. Alternatively, they can be harvested for bioenergy production and serve as a substitute for fossil fuels, though such a practice could reduce terrestrial C storage and thereby increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the near-term. Here, we used an ecosystem simulation model to ascertain the effectiveness of using forest bioenergy as a substitute for fossil fuels, drawing from a broad range of land-use histories, harvesting regimes, ecosystem characteristics, and bioenergy conversion efficiencies. Results demonstrate that the times required for bioenergy substitutions to repay the C Debt incurred from biomass harvest are usually much shorter (< 100 years) than the time required for bioenergy production to substitute the amount of C that would be stored if the forest were left unharvested entirely, a point we refer to as C Sequestration Parity. The effectiveness of substituting woody bioenergy for fossil fuels is highly dependent on the factors that determine bioenergy conversion efficiency, such as the C emissions released during the harvest, transport, and firing of woody biomass. Consideration of the frequency and intensity of biomass harvests should also be given; performing total harvests (clear-cutting) at high-frequency may produce more bioenergy than less intensive harvesting regimes but may decrease C storage and thereby prolong the time required to achieve C Sequestration Parity.