A Modest Proposal: Logging for Environmentalists

by localdeity1 min read18th Aug 20215 comments

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World Optimization
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(Epistemic status: non-expert who's spent about 5 minutes looking into the subject)

So, we have more wildfires this year in California, which are once again screwing up the local air quality.  As I understand it, there's lots of dry wood accumulating; the fires are bound to happen eventually, and if we manage to suppress them for some years, they'll just burn harder when (not if) the blaze finally happens—and we're currently reaping the effects of prior years of fire suppression.

I had a hunch, and googled, and found an article from September 2020 that says:

This year’s fires in California have already burned through 1.4 million hectares (3.4 million acres) of land, and the fire season isn’t set to end for at least a couple of months.

The fires have already generated more than 91 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is about 25% more than the state’s annual emissions from fossil fuels.

Which led me to an idea.  Could you pay logging companies to take a bunch of that wood, possibly chopping down some fraction of the living trees in the process, and do something with it that will prevent it being burned?  Good lumber can be used for construction (and you could sell it to the logging companies to help pay for this), bad wood can be buried or something.

Would the economics work out?  A 2008 paper estimates the costs of burying wood, as a carbon-capture technique, to be $14 per ton of CO2.  This would be without any offsets from selling the good lumber.  Meanwhile, there was a recent thread on /r/slatestarcodex about the costs of carbon capture, and most of the numbers I see there are much higher.  (It seems the cost estimates for many proposed methods involve a lot of guesswork about economies of scale.)  And it would have the further benefit of shrinking the wildfires and improving Californian air quality.  I thought there might be a low-hanging fruit tree here.

Anyway, neither practical politics nor this type of technology are my domain, nor do I know anyone who does work in the right domain, so I will just leave the idea here.

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I was thinking something similar recently. I'd add that you could go beyond wood - crop offal more generally should be very very cheap, and we basically just need to bury it someplace where the carbon won't leak out quickly.

We already use biomass to generate energy (expensive/inefficient), and energy to capture carbon (also expensive/inefficient); it seems like using biomass for carbon capture should be way cheaper/more efficient.

Pyrolysis and then burying the char as a soil amendment.

For a concrete example, in our county, there is a group called CHIPs that does wood fuel clearing on private land and uses it to create syngas and biochar.  I need to check on their cost per acre for tree and brush clearing next week, so I'll report back.

Well, you could if you weren't the US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.  [note: please dock 2 points for snark].  I've spent maybe 10 min on this topic over the last year, but I do have property next to federally owned land in the CA Sierras. My understanding is that getting Forest Service to allow more logging is really hard, and that letting more logging in CA get through legal challenges and local rules is even harder.   And selling some of the random patches of BLM land off never happens.  This source is visibly and emotionally biased, but in an article about a new bill it has some info about past failed attempts to increase logging for bark beetle infested areas.  FYI, beetle kill wood is still usable for lumber within 5 years, but not afterwards.
 

Interesting idea. I wonder if you could actually do that in a single step: take a bulldozer (or some special machinery like that), fell the trees and cover them with earth on the spot. The route of these could be based on satellite imagery, and different equipment may be used for different areas (e.g. if only smaller plants are to be covered)