For several hundred million years forests have been consuming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing carbon. That stored carbon is released into the atmosphere when we cut down or burn trees and disturb forest soils. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from human activities have been a result of deforestation.
One way to accelerate the removal of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere is by restoring degraded U.S. forests and soils. If we reduce logging and unsustainable uses of wood, we can significantly increase the rate at which our forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ensure that it will remain stored in naturally-functioning forest ecosystems.
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, the United States and 196 other nations agreed to combat climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement recognizes that forests play an important role in meeting climate goals by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing carbon in trees and soils. However, the agreement limits its scope to protect and restore only tropical forests. Odd, don’t you think?
Tropical forests are important, holding enormous amounts of carbon. Deforestation is also having a serious but seldom-recognized impact in the United States. Today, net annual U.S. forest growth removes an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere approximately equal to 11 to 13 percent of total fossil fuel emissions. This represents only about half of the average carbon uptake by forests worldwide. So, why are U.S. forests less effective at capturing and storing carbon relative to our fossil fuel emissions than forests globally?
In the United States we are cutting down trees at a rate that has reduced carbon storage potential by 42%. The highest forest disturbance rate n the world is in the southeastern United States. Tree plantations grow rapidly but are harvested and replanted on short rotations, which retains very little soil carbon. Plantation forests store less carbon than natural forests.
At the current rate, logging in U.S. forests currently releases more carbon dioxide annually than fossil fuel emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined.
The United States produces more wood pulp for paper (28%) and timber logs (17%) than any other country in the world. The U.S. is also a leading producer of wood pellets and wood chips for the rapidly-expanding forest bio-energy sector at home and abroad.
Industry and government propaganda has misled many people into believing that forest bio-energy is a renewable fuel source to generate electricity. Trees do grow back to replace those that are consumed – but slowly. Wood-produced energy is not a low-carbon energy source. Burning wood in power plants to generate electricity is typically 50% more carbon-intensive than coal-fired generation per unit or electricity produced.
Proponents insist that forest bio-energy is carbon-neutral because new tree growth, somewhere now or in the future, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and “offsets” carbon emissions from burning bio-fuels.
In fact, the European Union and many U.S. states classify biomass as a zero-carbon energy source like wind and solar power.
Today 60% of the European Union’s renewable energy comes from bio-energy. In the United Kingdom wood pellets imported from the southeast United States is rapidly replacing coal. That’s right, each year the UK import eight million tons of wood pellets across the Atlantic Ocean thanks to the over $1 billion in annual subsidies the British government forks over to utilities to pay the cost of pellet production and transport.
Under current climate accounting rules, emissions from burning wood for energy are counted as coming from land use change — that is, harvesting trees. This means that the United Kingdom is outsourcing carbon emissions from its wood-fired power plants to the United States. Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that bio-energy is as carbon-intensive as fossil fuels, U.S. forest products industry and U.K. power companies are profiting handsomely from “unprofitable” business practices that require huge government subsidies. Costs related directly and indirectly to serious detrimental effects on forests and negative impacts on Earth’s climate are never accounted for.
Forests are changing in ways they’ve never experienced before because today’s growing conditions are different from anything in the past. Change is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Landscapes fragmented by human activity are increasingly vulnerable to diseases and pests that thrive in the new conditions.
Historically, reforestation efforts on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service employ locally adapted and elevation-appropriate native seed sources. Typically, managers based decisions on the assumption that present site conditions are similar to those of the past. This may no longer be a valid assumption as conditions change more rapidly than local, native seed sources can adapt.
Obviously, natural forests provide more than forest commodities or carbon storage. They provide natural filtration for drinking water, prevent flooding, support biological diversity and the habitat upon which fish and wildlife populations depend. Mature forests moderate local temperatures, and provide much, much more if you really think about it.
A carbon accounting system that accurately reflects flows of carbon between the biosphere and the atmosphere is long overdue. Bio-energy emissions should be counted as coming from energy production, rather than as a land-use change. It is also time to manage our forest systems on a sound ecological basis by fully accounting for the multiple values and ecosystem services that forests provide. One thing for sure, we can’t log and burn our way to a more stable, low-carbon future.