Today is the International Day of Forests, a day to celebrate the ways forests sustain life on Earth. Around the globe, the prominent role forests play in the fight against climate change is at the forefront of efforts to keep global temperatures at a level that ensures an inhabitable planet. Yet, forest protection in the U.S. is barely a blip on the radar of environmental organizations, corporate sustainability leaders, and policy makers.
When left standing, natural forests have tremendous capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. U.S. forests alone absorb emissions equivalent to 191 million cars or 75% of the cars on US roads in a given year. They also ensure stable, clean water supplies and protect us from storms. These services are critical to our ability to withstand the effects of a changing climate. Forest loss and degradation disrupt these critical services and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
That’s why forests have been a major focus of international climate negotiations from the beginning. In fact, forest protection was a major focus of the historic Paris Agreement with new commitments providing much needed support for tropical forest protection.
Unfortunately, this ground-breaking climate agreement won’t do much to help forests in the United States even though forest disturbance from industrial logging in the Southeast alone was four times that of South American rainforests from 2000 to 2012. We’ve already lost millions of acres of natural forests to tree plantations, and industry experts project that we’ll lose millions more over the coming decades. The “save tropical forests” while we “log the heck out of our own forests” is not a sound climate strategy. Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation begins at home.
U.S. climate efforts are focused almost exclusively on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, which we absolutely must do. If the climate impacts associated with the rate and scale of industrial logging in the US were better understood, we’d likely see equal emphasis on forest protection as well.
Instead, ironically, the logging of the nation’s most biologically diverse and unprotected forests has accelerated. The U.S. South is now the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets as a “renewable” alternative to coal for generating biomass electricity in Europe. Exports jumped from almost nothing in 2012 to 4.4 million tons in 2014. Clearing of sensitive, carbon rich and biodiverse wetland forests to feed this explosive new market has been well documented. At the same time, carbon emissions coming out of the smokestack at power plants in Europe that have switched to wood pellets have gone up, not down.
It will get a lot worse for U.S. forests and carbon emissions if big coal plants start burning wood as “renewable” fuel under the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Unfortunately, things seem to be headed in that direction. EPA expects “many states” to rely on biomass to meet regulatory requirements under the CPP. In fact, the Senate just passed an amendment to the Energy Modernization Act that designates carbon emissions from all biomass as “sustainable” and “climate friendly.”
This amendment aligns with the biomass industry position that we shouldn't worry about increased emissions today because trees absorb carbon when they grow and eventually those emissions will be offset at some point in the future. However, countless scientific studies as well as prominent U.S. scientists warn that burning trees for electricity will actually accelerate climate change.
It can take as long as 100 years for carbon burned from a tree to be recaptured. This is hardly helpful given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions today. It takes seconds for a tree to burn but many decades for a forest to regrow. It’s important to remember that the forests cleared today will be gone for a very, very long time. Not only that, chances are good that the forest will be cleared again long before it reaches maturity and therefore the carbon burned into the atmosphere today may not, in fact, ever be offset by future growth.
The Center for Sustainable Economy and Geos Institute recently released a report concluding that if carbon emissions from clear-cut logging in Oregon were accurately counted, they would be four to seven times that of the emissions from the state’s only coal-fired power plant. This example underscores how carbon emissions associated with logging in the US are not accurately reported. As a direct result, there is very little focus on forests when it comes to climate policy in the United States even though logging is a major source of emissions.
At the end of the day, we aren’t fooling the atmosphere. We better pay closer attention to what’s really happening to forests in our own backyard. In addition to scaling up clean energy like solar and wind power, it’s time for the United States to prioritize an aggressive forest protection agenda.
Danna Smith is the founder and Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, an award-winning nonprofit that mobilizes diverse voices to protect the forests and communities of the Southern US from destructive industrial logging. For 20 years, she has been at the forefront of the forest protection in the United States, working at the local, regional, national and international levels. Learn more about her organization and work and www.dogwoodalliance.org.