Pathways to Forest Health and Carbon Neutrality in California

As part of our long-term policy design work, CSG has been exploring how California can achieve its ambitious forest health and GHG emissions reduction goals. In this blog post, we highlight findings to date from collaborations with UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and others, including promising strategies for aligning the state’s forest health and carbon neutrality goals.

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As Californians, we fear that 2020 will be another disastrous fire year. In 2018 alone, fires burned almost 2 million acres, caused well over $15 billion in damages, and resulted in 100 fatalities. These fires also resulted in dramatic climate impacts, releasing over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs), and greatly hampered progress towards our long-term climate and air quality goals. More recently, PG&E’s public safety power shutoffs underscore how fire affects all Californians – from rural communities to big cities. In an era of climate change, now more than ever, it is imperative that our forests are healthy, resilient, and able to withstand the growing threat of catastrophic wildfire.

California’s Forest Policy

California aims to increase the pace and scale of forest management, including forest thinning, prescribed fire, and similar fuels reduction treatments, in order to reduce wildfire and improve forest health. In 2018, former Governor Brown issued Executive Order (EO) B-52-18, which described how the state’s forests are overgrown and deteriorating due to a history of fire suppression. This EO was accompanied by the finalization of California’s Forest Carbon Plan (FCP), which sets an aspirational goal for the state to treat one million forested acres per year.

FCP implementation presents a number of implications for California. First, it requires a significant increase in the level of forest treatments, which are currently about 250,000 acres per year. Second, it requires a substantial increase in funding for forest treatments. Assuming it costs $2,000 to treat one acre, it will cost the state $2 billion+ per year, for the next 20+ years, to implement the FCP. In the 2019-20 budget, California only spent $200 million on forest treatments. Finally, it requires a new strategy for forest residues management. FCP implementation will generate hundreds of millions of new tons of wood waste. If this waste can only be processed via current approaches, including open pile burning, decomposition, or combustion in biomass power plants, this will result in substantial GHG emissions, and the state’s efforts to achieve forest health will undermine its climate goals.

CSG, in collaboration with UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and others, has been exploring each of these implications, as well as potential strategies to help the state achieve its goals. We highlight some findings from key analyses that we have worked on.

Fire, Carbon, and Jobs

UC Berkeley evaluated the fire, carbon, and jobs implications of increasing forest management in California. UC Berkeley found that the ability to convert wood waste resulting from fuels reduction treatments into wood products is critical for enabling wildfire reduction, GHG emissions reductions, and job creation benefits. UC Berkeley considered two key scenarios:

  • Business-As-Usual (BAU): If wood waste can only be processed via current approaches, including open pile burning, decomposition, or combustion in biomass power plants, then fire and jobs benefits are limited. This is because BAU disposal options provide limited revenue to support an expansion in forest management. Moreover, with only BAU disposal options, GHG emissions from forests could actually increase over the period to 2045; meaning efforts to improve forest health would undermine the state’s climate goals (Figure 1a).
  • Wood Products: If wood waste can be collected and processed into wood products, including biofuels and mass timber[1], then fire, carbon, and jobs benefits can accrue. As wood products increase the value of wood waste, forest management can be expanded, resulting in fire and jobs benefits. New wood products manufacturing also creates jobs in rural communities. A preliminary analysis indicates that a wood products initiative could create at least 60,000 new jobs in California[2]. Finally, avoided BAU disposal options, in conjunction with lifecycle GHG benefits provided by biofuels and mass timber, provide high GHG reductions (Figure 1b).

Figure 1: This diagram compares three scenarios based on their ability to yield beneficial outcomes for fire reduction, job creation, and GHG reductions. We found that converting wood waste into wood products with CCS would maximize fire reduction, job creation, and GHG reductions.

Figure 1: This diagram compares three scenarios based on their ability to yield beneficial outcomes for fire reduction, job creation, and GHG reductions. We found that converting wood waste into wood products with CCS would maximize fire reduction, job creation, and GHG reductions.

Interplay with Carbon Neutrality

Forest residues are not only a source of potential energy, but also, carbon dioxide (CO­2). In a recent study, LLNL and its collaborators demonstrated how capturing and storing the CO2 contained in California’s biomass waste streams, of which forest waste is the largest, is a critical strategy for the state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 (known as “negative emissions”). This is possible where biomass waste is converted into biofuels, such as renewable hydrogen or renewable natural gas, with carbon capture and storage (CCS). As a result, the prospect of converting forest waste into biofuels with CCS presents an important opportunity to align the state’s forest health and climate goals. Additional state and federal incentives for performing CCS can support an expansion in forest management. CCS would also serve to create new job opportunities in the Central Valley (e.g. a potential hub for a new carbon economy). In full, wood products with CCS allows fire, carbon, and jobs benefits to be maximized (Figure 1c).

Policy Opportunities

CSG is currently working to develop new policies that would put this science into action. Figure 2 provides a conceptual reference point for this work.


Figure 2: Forest waste-to-fuels with CCS supply chain.

Based on a wide range of discussions with academics, conservation partners, project developers, state agency experts, and others, we are exploring three key issues related to this supply chain:

  • Feedstock supply:How can we ensure that forest residues are sustainably removed, and that facilities can obtain reliable, long-term supplies of feedstock? CSG is exploring how new regional wood waste management entities (“Forest Resilience Authorities”) could achieve both of these objectives. See here for a recent discussion paper.
  • Product price:How can we ensure sufficient incentives for biofuels products? CSG is exploring how California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) could feasibly be amended to provide increased incentives for very low-carbon and carbon-negative fuel pathways, as well as wood waste fuel pathways. See here for a discussion paper. Importantly, given its lifecycle assessment foundation, the LCFS could be leveraged in a way that rewards ecological and multi-benefit forest management.
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS): How can we demonstrate and scale CCS in California? CSG is exploring how a “CO2 transport and storage” entity could reduce barriers to market entry. See here for a preliminary concept paper.

Conclusion

The severity of California’s forest health crisis – and what it will take to scale wildfire risk reduction treatments to meet state goals – is a multi-faceted, multi-decadal, complex problem. Based on the work of UC Berkeley, LLNL, and others, converting forest residues into wood products with CCS appears to be a strong potential strategy which can support and align California’s ambitious forest treatment and climate goals. It also paves the way for numerous other benefits, including air and water quality improvements and biodiversity protection. Finally, it may present an opportunity to enhance the state’s current economic recovery efforts. For more information on this work, please contact Sam Uden (sam@csgcalifornia.com) or Amanda DeMarco (amanda@csgcalifornia.com).

We are grateful to the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and ClimateWorks Foundation for supporting this work.


[1] UC Berkeley and the Joint Institute for Wood Products Innovation (JIWPI) showed that biofuels are suited to derivation from small-diameter, non-merchantable forest residues, while mass timber products, such as cross-laminated timber, are suited to derivation from merchantable timber (i.e. greater than 8” in DBH).

[2] This includes a combination of new forestry jobs (i.e. 17,153), wood products infrastructure construction jobs (37,021), wood products operations jobs (1,577), and supply chain/indirect effects job creation (12,401).

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