Covering a third of the planet’s land surface, forests are massive carbon sinks, absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and keeping it out of the atmosphere where it would contribute to global warming. Only the world’s oceans store more carbon. Keeping forests intact has long been considered essential to maintaining a healthy planetary environment, but scientists are now beginning to understand just how critical they are in the fight against climate change.
A recent study conducted by a team of international researchers from several institutions, including NASA, the World Resources Institute, California Institute of Technology, Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia, integrated ground data and satellite imagery to map the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s forests. They found that between 2001 and 2019, the world’s forests stored about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted. “[F]orests provide a ‘carbon sink’ that absorbs a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 per year, 1.5 times more carbon than the United States emits annually,” write two of the report’s authors, Nancy Harris and David Gibbs of the World Resources Institute. “Overall, the data show that keeping existing forests standing remains our best hope for maintaining the vast amount of carbon forests store and continuing the carbon sequestration that, if halted, will worsen the effects of climate change.”
“[T]ropical forests alone absorb up to 1.8 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere every year,” according to WWF, an international nongovernmental organization based in Switzerland working to preserve the Earth’s wilderness. “However, agriculture, forestry and other land uses are responsible for nearly a quarter of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions… Ending forest conversion, preserving the forest carbon sink, and restoring forests [have] the potential to avoid more than one-third of global emissions.”
In March, dozens of environmental advocacy groups, including the John Muir Project, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Alaska Wilderness League, submitted a letter to John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, and Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, urging the Biden administration to protect the nation’s carbon-dense forests in the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which are climate action plans created by states that have signed the Paris climate agreement. The NDC is currently being drafted by President Biden’s climate team and will be presented to the United Nations later this year. The coalition specifically highlighted the need to protect the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. Spanning nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass is the largest national forest—and the largest carbon sink—in the U.S. It is also the largest remaining temperate rainforest on the planet.
“Article 5 of the Paris Agreement encourages Parties to conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs, including forests,” the letter states. “The United States’ NDC cannot approach the needed commitment level without strong, science-based natural climate solutions that include protecting all of our remaining old and mature forests, like those in the Tongass. Including the Tongass and other old forestlands in our NDC will send a signal to the world that the U.S. is ready to lead on protecting critical natural climate solutions.”
In addition to sequestering carbon and protecting the Earth’s climate, forests provide a wide range of ecosystem services, from supplying food, fuel, timber and fiber, to purifying the air, filtering water supplies, maintaining wildlife habitats, controlling floods and preventing soil erosion. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear to the public something that scientists have been warning for decades: Deforestation is linked to the spread of zoonotic diseases. But those services are threatened when forests are cleared for wood products and land-use changes, like making space for climate-destructive industries like the meat industry.
For decades, U.S. federal forest policy has served the interests of the forest products industry by permitting and even subsidizing unsustainable logging. And that, in turn, is driving massive carbon emissions. Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina, that is working to protect the nation’s Southern forests across 14 states, has launched a public petition urging the Biden administration to “hold the forestry industry accountable for its climate, biodiversity, and community impacts” and “establish strong, ecologically sound, and environmentally just protections” for forests.
The economic benefit of healthy forests is significant. According to Dogwood Alliance, the ecosystem services that wetland forests provide are worth more than $500 billion, which could reach nearly $550 billion if an additional 13 million acres of wetland forests were protected and logged sustainably. “The ecosystem service value of an intensively manage[d] wetland forest is just $1,200 per acre,” says the group, which has been working to inform the public about the dangers of the wood pellet industry. “But wetland forests left alone are worth over $18,600 per acre. By shifting the focus of management from timber production to native ecosystem health, wetland forests increase in value over fifteen times.”
“Forests have rapidly become a primary source of biomass fuel in the EU,” writes Earth | Food | Life contributor Danna Smith, the founder and executive director of Dogwood Alliance, on Truthout. “Flawed carbon accounting assumes burning trees is carbon-neutral if a tree is planted to replace the one that has been chopped down, but biomass imported from the U.S. to the EU is never properly accounted for. This faulty logic has led to massive renewable energy subsidies for biomass under the EU Renewable Energy Directive program. It has further encouraged countries like the U.K., Netherlands and Denmark to subsidize the destruction of forests for fuel at a time when we need to let forests grow to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, protect biodiversity and shore up natural protections against extreme flooding and droughts.”
“Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours,” the German-Swiss poet and novelist Hermann Hesse wrote in his 1920 collection, Wandering: Notes and Sketches. “They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them.” As nearly 200 of the world’s nations attempt to achieve the Paris climate agreement’s goals of keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it’s time to listen to the wisdom of trees.