Forests have been removing carbon dioxide in the air and storing carbon for more than 300 million years. When we cut or burn off trees and disturb forest lands, we discharge that stored carbon to the atmosphere.
To we need to also accelerate the elimination of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.
In a fresh report released by the nonprofit Dogwood Alliance, my co-author Danna Smith and I show that we have a significant chance to make progress on climate change by restoring degraded U.S. woods and soils. If we decrease logging and unsustainable uses of timber, we can increase the pace at which our woods remove carbon dioxide in the air and guarantee that it will stay stored in healthy forests.
A Reasonable Resource
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, the United States and 196 other countries agreed to fight climate change by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris agreement recognizes that forests play an important role in meeting climate objects by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing carbon in soils and trees. But the agreement calls for measures simply to safeguard and restore tropical forests.
All these forests clearly are important. They maintain these enormous quantities of carbon which when they were a country, their emissions from forest clearing would rank them as the planet’s third-largest origin, behind China and the United States.
However, these activities will also be using a serious and little-recognized impact in the USA. Net U.S. forest growth annually eliminates an amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere equivalent to 11 to 13 percent of our fossil fuel emissions. This is just about half of the ordinary carbon uptake by forests globally. In other words, U.S. woods are much less effective at capturing and storing carbon relative to our fossil fuel emissions compared to woods globally.
The greatest contribution to this gap is logging. We are cutting trees at the USA at a rate that’s reduced the carbon storage capacity of U.S. woods by 42% of its potential. Recent satellite images show that the southeastern United States has the highest forest disturbance rate on the planet.
Overharvesting Reduces Carbon storage
When only about a percentage of initial intact old growth woods remains in the lower 48 states. Regrowth currently covers 62% of places that originally were forested, and commercial tree plantations cover an additional 8 percent.
Tree plantations grow rapidly but are harvested frequently and retain very little soil carbon and are harvested more frequently. Because of this, they store less carbon than natural woods.
And we are still logging our forests at a significant speed. According to recent studies, timber harvesting in U.S forests now releases more carbon dioxide per year than fossil fuel emissions in the residential and commercial sectors combined.
These harvests support a huge timber and paper products industry. America produces about 28 percent of the world’s wood pulp and 17% of wood logs more than any other nation in the world. It is also the top producer of wood pellets and wood chips for the growing forest bioenergy industry (burning wood in various forms for electricity) in the home and abroad.
Wood Energy Isn’t Low Carbon
Forest Bioenergy is broadly regarded as a renewable fuel source, because new trees may grow albeit slowly to replace the ones that are not consumed. But it isn’t a low-carbon energy resource. Bioenergy produces about as much carbon as coal per unit of heat discharged. Burning wood in power plants to generate power is generally 50 percent more carbon intensive than coal-fired production per unit of power generated.
However, proponents assert that forest bioenergy is carbon-neutral because new tree growth, somewhere now or in the future, removes carbon dioxide in the air and “offsets” carbon emissions when biofuels are burned.
Today 60% of the European Union’s renewable energy comes out of bioenergy. Notably, the United Kingdom is ending its use of coal for power, but is substituting coal using wood pellets imported from the southeast United States.
Needless to say, it does not make fiscal sense to import eight thousand tons of wood pellets annual across the Atlantic Ocean. However, the British government has provided around $1 billion in yearly subsidies to utilities to pay the cost of auto production and transportation.
Moreover, this means that the United Kingdom is outsourcing carbon emissions from its own wood-fired power plants into the United States. Along with the U.S. woods products sector and U.K. electricity businesses are profiting from activities that have serious harmful impacts on Earth’s climate.
Forests supply over forest products or carbon storage. They stop flooding, provide natural filter for drinking water, support wildlife, moderate neighborhood temperature extremes and provide a storehouse of scientific knowledge, cultural values and recreation opportunities.
To create forests part of the climate plan, we are in need of a carbon accounting system which accurately reflects flows of carbon in the biosphere and the atmosphere.
We also must manage our woods systems on a sound ecological basis rather than as an economic growth-oriented company, and value the multiple ecosystem services one means to do this would be to pay landowners for maintaining standing forests rather than just subsidizing logging for wood, fiber or fuel. We cannot log and burn our method into a low carbon, steady climate future.