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Reduced impact logging failing to cut emissions in Indonesia

Advocates for reduced impact logging in tropical forests often make a case that better forest management cuts carbon emissions relative to traditional forms of timber harvesting. While the argument for altering logging approaches to limit forest damage makes intuitive sense, a new study suggests that the carbon benefits may not bear out in practice.

Bronson Griscom and Peter Ellis of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Jack Putz of the University of Florida evaluated nine sites in logging concessions in Indonesian Borneo, measuring the width of logging trails and the mass of trees damaged by harvesting. From that work they estimated emissions associated with reduced impact logging (RIL) and compared them with conventional logging.

What they found was a surprise: reduced impact logging — at least as practiced in the Indonesian concessions — did not meaningfully reduce emissions relative to conventional logging.

“We found that concessions certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, N = 3), when compared with noncertified concessions (N = 6), did not have lower overall CO2 emissions from logging activity (felling, skidding, and hauling),” they write.

Conventional logging in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.Conventional logging in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The problem, say the authors, is that reduced impact logging practices aren’t being employed on the ground, due in part to conflicting incentives. A blog post from TNC explains: “The authors identified four practices that do improve emissions performance, but they are not all recognized as RIL and not applied consistently, even on RIL concessions. If implemented together, these four practices could reduce carbon emissions from logging in Indonesia by about 50 percent, without reducing wood production.”

Opportunities include cutting only usable trees, leaving ecologically valuable hollow trees standing; using cables rather than bulldozers to drag logs out of the forest; and employing directional felling to minimize biomass losses. The authors note that while reduced impact logging doesn’t explicitly target emissions reductions, focusing on the issue “points to important gaps in existing reduced impact logging schemes.”

“To clarify the relationship between RIL and emissions reductions, we propose the more explicit term ‘RIL-C’ to refer to the subset of RIL practices that can be defined by quantified thresholds and that result in measurable emissions reductions,” they write. “If tropical forest certification is to be linked with CO2 emissions reductions, certification standards need to explicitly require RIL-C practices.”

Nonetheless, the results cast doubt on whether reduced impact logging should receive payments under REDD+. Griscom and colleagues argue that simple fixes could result in real emissions reductions, but the question is whether these fixes will be actually implemented on the ground, especially in poorly-monitored concessions like those studied in Kalimantan. The danger is REDD+ could effectively subsidize logging in high carbon stock forests like old-growth rainforests without cutting emissions, while degrading the biological value and ecological resilience of the area.

Old growth rainforest in Borneo
Old growth rainforest in Borneo

Bill Laurance of James Cook University says he’d rather see REDD+ funds used for purposes other than subsidizing logging in primary forests.

“Rather than trying to use REDD+ funds to lower carbon emissions from logging, I’d rather see such funds used to purchase previously logged forests or to protect them from conversion,” Laurance told “For instance, Indonesia alone has at least 35 million hectares of logged forest, large expanses of which is being cleared for oil palm or wood pulp. These logged forests still retain a lot of biodiversity and carbon, and because most of their marketable timber is gone they could be very cost-effective purchases to reduce emissions and save biodiversity.”

Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide agreed with Laurance.

“It’s insane to consider ‘lower-emission’ logging at all considering the forests, no matter the disturbance, are never able to retain as much carbon or biodiversity as primary forests,” Bradshaw told “As we found in the Gibson et al. paper in Nature, absolutely nothing can replace the value of primary forest.”

CITATION: Griscom, B., P. Ellis & F.E. Putz. 2014. Carbon emission performance of commercial logging in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. 2014. Carbon emissions performance of commercial logging in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Global Change Biology, 20:3. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12386

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