New environmental research argues that the net carbon emissions from deforestation to be much lower than previously thought. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Like the Lorax, Brent Sohngen speaks for the trees. In new environmental research, trees are talking — and they’re not saying what you might think.

Current estimates of carbon emissions from deforestation and its effect on climate change are overstated, according to an Ohio State and Yale University study published Monday. In the study, deforestation is defined as harvesting trees and clearing land for agricultural purposes.

When forest management techniques, such as wildfire control and fertilization, are taken into account, the net amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere from deforestation is lower than previously thought, Sohngen, a professor of environmental and resource economics at Ohio State, said.

Previous studies calculated manmade net carbon emissions from deforestation at 27 percent of all emissions. The new research, published in the Journal of Forest Economics, places net emissions at 7 percent, according to the study authored by Sohngen and Robert Mendelsohn, a Yale University professor of forest policy and economics.

Earlier studies’ calculations were based on the ability of unharvested natural forests to store carbon, according to the study. Sohngen said managed forests are more productive when it comes to removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Previous estimates overestimated net emissions because they did not take account of the planting and management of global forests over the last 70 years that was undertaken to build a renewable timber forest,” Mendelsohn said in an Ohio State press release.

Sohngen said timber forests can be renewable when small plots of land are invested in to produce trees regularly, leaving large areas of natural forests untouched.

Trees take in and store carbon dioxide as they grow, which lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But when forests are burned or wood is used as a fuel, carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. When trees are cut down and used for building materials, the carbon is never released, Sohngen said.

Growing and harvesting trees with shorter maturity times allows more carbon to be stored at a faster rate, he said.

“[Land managers are] not doing it for storing more carbon,” Sonhgen said. “They’re doing it for increasing the productivity of trees for timber markets and other kinds of markets to actually use the tree biomass. However, the byproduct is they get a lot more carbon,” Sohngen said.

Sohngen said the research may affect whether using a biomass such as wood as a source of fuel is carbon neutral.

“You could have implications relatively immediately, in terms of that policy debate, about whether or not biomass energy actually is treated as a carbon-neutral activity,” Sohngen said.