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  • Ryan Wittler

How to Reduce California’s Wildfire Risk While Still Limiting Carbon Emissions

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To make forests more resilient to wildfires, California’s forest managers remove small trees and underbrush, leaving larger, more fire-resistant trees in place.

The problem is that while larger trees can be harvested and sold for timber, the small ones that forest managers remove simply get burned, thereby releasing once-stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Now, a new analysis by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley gives the state a “roadmap” for how it can effectively reduce wildfire risk while continuing to limit its carbon emissions: create a market for the small trees and wood residue leftover from wildfire risk mitigation.

Some highlights:

The researchers performed a “cradle-to-grave” analysis to examine the emissions associated with the entire life of a product, finding that if California incentivized industries to use the “woody biomass” leftover from clearing forest overgrowth, the state could create a market that doesn’t significantly add to its carbon emissions.

According to the researchers, the state should focus on using the woody biomass to create biofuel and, more importantly, the production of “innovative wood products” like engineered lumber, a common building product in the U.S.

The best case:

The researchers also proposed a model scenario in which California incentivizes the use of engineered lumber in place of some of the steel and concrete used in the construction of multi-unit affordable housing, a move they say would drastically cut the carbon emissions associated with new construction.

Overall, according to study co-author Brandon Collins, creating a market for woody biomass “could reduce wildfire hazard, prevent air pollution from smoke, and potentially displace fossil fuels and increase water availability.”

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