Editor’s Note: Danna Smith is the executive director of Dogwood Alliance, a group that works to protect forests in the Southern US. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
CNN published an opinion piece on Feb. 10 with the headline, “Plant trees, sure. But to save the climate, we should also cut them down.” This piece omitted some vital facts and science.
While the piece did not call for a broad expansion of logging, I think it’s important for readers to understand these facts.
Industrial logging and wood production are major drivers of climate disruption. The US is the world’s largest consumer and producer of wood products, according to data from 2015. Due to the intensity of logging, the rate and scale of forest destruction in the Southeastern US is estimated to be four times that of South American rainforests.
When a forest is logged, carbon that would otherwise have been stored in the forest is emitted. Wood does store carbon even after it is chopped down, but much of that is lost into the atmosphere in the manufacturing process, when wood is used as building material, chopped into plywood, or turned into wood pellets; more is lost when wood is burned as fuel. Logging is the largest source of carbon emissions from US forests, according to research published in 2016, with the largest amounts coming from the Southeastern US.
Yet, there is a concerted effort to distract the public from this fact and focus attention instead on planting trees and expanding our consumption of wood as a “natural climate solution.”
First of all, planting trees is a poor substitute for protecting existing forests when it comes to solving the climate crisis. Natural forests are best at soaking up carbon from the atmosphere and the older a forest, the more carbon it can absorb and store, if left standing.
Think about it. It takes decades for a forest to grow. All that time it is transferring carbon from the atmosphere to the land. When a forest is cut, it releases carbon that took decades to absorb, at a time when we need to keep carbon out of the atmosphere.
Second, the science shows that the older a tree gets, the more carbon it can absorb and store. It’s like slowly turning up the speed on a vacuum cleaner. That means that we need to not only protect the old forests but also allow the young forests to grow old. It also means that protecting forests that are already established is one of the most effective strategies when it comes to climate change.
Third, we all support the re-establishment of forests on lands where there are none currently, but that is a long-term strategy and we need short-term solutions that address the current climate emergency. We only have about eight years to turn things around, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is much more effective to protect a natural forest that already exists than to plant a new one. It takes decades, if not up to a century for a forest ecosystem to evolve and time is not on our side when it comes to avoiding climate chaos.
Some scientists have warned that tree planting is not nearly as important as protecting existing natural forests. In addition, a forest is more than just trees. It’s shrubs, ground cover, a myriad of native plants, microorganisms, fungi and animals. Monoculture commercial tree plantations are not forests. They are carbon and biodiversity deserts. Tree planting efforts that create monocultures will be establishing carbon and biodiversity deserts. That means a lot of time and money spent on a feel-good solution that doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Scaling up the protection of our nation’s forests from logging is as vital to solving the climate crisis as phasing out fossil fuels. Protecting existing natural forests is also the best strategy for shoring up natural flood control, and ensuring stable supplies of clean drinking water and protecting biodiversity. As we begin to experience increasing impacts of extreme weather linked to climate change, standing natural forests are our communities’ best natural defense.