Forests are the only systems we have that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere within the timeframe necessary to save humanity.
By DANNA SMITH
AlterNet / March 2017
The month of March includes the International Day of Forests. It is an important time to note our window for avoiding catastrophic climate change is rapidly closing. We will not solve the climate crisis without a massive increase in the protection of forests around the world, including in our own backyard. We will not solve the climate crisis without a massive increase in the protection of forests around the world, including in our own backyard.
This year I am releasing a report I co-authored with Bill Moomaw, a renowned climate scientist from Tufts University, with one simple but urgent message: forest protection needs to be a national priority in the fight against climate change. Through the release of “The Great American Stand: U.S. Forests & the Climate Emergency,” followed by a series of speaking engagements, Dr. Moomaw and I hope to elevate forests into the national climate spotlight and catalyze new action focused on protecting and restoring our nation’s forests in ways that strengthen the resiliency and economic vitality of our most vulnerable rural communities.
The United States produces and consumes more forest products than any country on Earth. Forest disturbance from logging in the southern U.S. alone is four times that of South American rainforests. The rate and scale of logging are significantly diminishing the extent to which our nation’s forests would otherwise be removing and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, protecting communities from floods and stabilizing freshwater supplies. We simply cannot afford to ignore this critical fact any longer.
Latest calculations document that current concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere have reached the dangerous level of 400 parts per million (ppm), well above the 350 ppm threshold necessary to avoid catastrophe. The last time carbon was at 400 ppm, humans did not exist on the planet. We must, therefore, bring annual emissions down to as close to zero as possible, while also removing more carbon from the atmosphere. Forests are the only systems we have that can suck carbon out of the atmosphere within the timeframe and at the scale necessary to save humanity. We simply cannot achieve the ambitious climate goals as set forth in the historic Paris Climate Agreement without a massive scale-up in forest protection across the planet.
Old, intact natural forests are the most highly complex, efficient, climate-stabilizing technology we have. When left standing, natural forests can pull increasingly vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, storing it in plants and soil. They also happen to be the best natural defense against impacts of extreme weather events, providing flood control and stabilizing freshwater supplies. These services buffer our communities against intensifying storms and more severe periods of drought.
Yet, in just a few hundred years, human civilization has severely compromised our nation’s forests’ ability to provide these critical climate-stabilizing functions, while releasing vast amounts of forest carbon into the atmosphere. In the lower 48 states, less than 1 percent of our original, unspoiled forests with all species intact remains. Though trees can live to be hundreds, even thousands of years old, less than 15 percent of our forests are older than 100 years.
Meanwhile, tens of millions of acres of forests have been replaced with fast-growing, single-species pine plantations, routinely sprayed with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Our nation’s forested landscape has become a patchwork of forest fragments, flanked by clearcuts and tree plantations. This widespread destruction and degradation has occurred in tandem with the accelerated release of carbon into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Yet to date, climate strategies in the United States largely ignore the important climate-stabilizing function of forests, and efforts are too narrowly focused on only one critical aspect of the climate equation—phasing out the use of fossil fuels.
According to the latest EPA annual report of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, our nation’s forests annually remove an amount of carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to a mere 11-13 percent of emissions. This is roughly half that of the global average of 25% and a mere fraction of what is needed to avoid climate catastrophe. A 2016 study found that from 2006 to 2010, logging diminished the potential U.S. forest carbon sink by at least 35%.
And while the EPA annual greenhouse gas inventory report fails to report U.S. emissions from logging, the same study calculated average annual harvest emissions at 161 +/- 10 MMT C (596 MMT CO2). That’s more than the annual average emissions during that same period from the commercial and residential sectors combined as reported by EPA’s most recent emissions report. Actual carbon emissions from logging are probably significantly higher since soil emissions, which can be significant, were not even considered.
In addition, two of 2016’s most expensive natural disasters in the world were from flooding in the rural coastal communities of the southeastern region, where logging rates are some of the highest on Earth, protected areas are few and regulations are lacking. And despite having the strongest forest markets of anywhere in the world, poverty persists across the rural South, disproportionately affecting people of color.
Forest protection and restoration in the United States has been largely ignored as a climate imperative. Instead, accelerated logging is often proposed as a climate solution. In the past several years, the coastal region of the South has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets to Europe, where they are burned to generate electricity in place of coal. This new market is driving increased logging of forests, including wetland forests along the rivers in rural communities.
Meanwhile, burning trees for electricity releases up to 50 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal per unit of electricity generated. We cannot log our way out of the climate crisis. If we don’t change course, we will not solve the climate emergency.
Treating forests as an unlimited, renewable, extractable commodity that can support infinite growth in the forest products industry is an outdated business model that must yield to a new economic system that values standing forests and strengthens the resilience of our communities. We can solve the climate crisis by expanding forest protection while we rapidly drive down emissions from fossil fuels and transition toward clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. New investments in forest protection and restoration can also drive business innovation and create new economic opportunities for our most vulnerable communities. But, we won’t get there if we continue to turn a blind eye to what is happening to the forests and communities right here at home.
Danna Smith is the founder and executive director of Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the forests and communities of the southern United States from destructive industrial logging.