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Woodworking, Willows and Carbon Accounting

Did you know your wood floor is storing carbon? Neat!

This post may raise more questions than it answers, and definitely will touch on many of the recurring themes I've written about before on this blog.

Here's the basic principle: trees "capture" carbon and turn it into biomass. If it stays on the tree it's "stored" and (mostly) not back in the atmosphere. But if you take the tree down or prune it, what happens to the carbon in the wood? Well, it could be released back into the atmosphere quickly (e.g. by burning for fuel), slowly (e.g. by decomposition), or trapped for a very very long time if that wood becomes a table, a basket or bookshelves.

This is part of why I advocate for the latter two options in most cases. While decomposition does release carbon, it also provides other benefits like building healthy soil and supporting fungal communities. But this post will focus on that third option.

So here's another principle: if you prune a tree, we know that photosynthetic rates immediately after that usually increase, and tree biomass regrows. So, theoretically, a pruned tree, coppice or pollard will store more carbon than an unpruned tree, especially if the prunings are used in a way that doesn't release the carbon.

But this gets really tricky really fast: how much carbon went into pruning the tree? What was the transport? What tools were used? How much carbon went into the processing? There's often a tradeoff between less transport, lower economy of scale, and higher convenience (your local chainsaw miller) and more transport, greater economy of scale, and less convenience (a sawmill). There's also the general principle that in a perfect world, use of residential wood could decrease the need for forest wood, and/or pruned wood could decrease the need for removed wood.

As usual, none of this is simple or easy. We may not always make the "right" decision (if that even exists), but it's important to consider the questions. I cannot reiterate enough that I'm not the arborist to reach out to if you want easy answers. I did see someone recommend an arborist awhile back with something along the lines of "they didn't leave a stick behind", which is not an ecological approach in my opinion; this is part of why. This is also why I'm always trying to take up woodworking, turning, and carving (with mixed success).

If you want a willow-centric auditory version of some of this, I recommend checking out the treehugger podcast coppice & pollard episode:

This is the Urban Wood Marketplace that the Forest Service was/is working on. It's an extremely valuable project and deserves more time and attention:


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