Forests have been removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing carbon for more than 300 million years. When we cut down or burn trees and disturb forest soils, we release that stored carbon to the atmosphere. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from human activities have come from deforestation.
To slow climate change, we need to rapidly reduce global emissions from fossil fuels, biofuels, deforestation and wetland and agricultural soils. We need to also accelerate the removal of carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere.
In a new report published by the nonprofit Dogwood Alliance, my co-author Danna Smith and I show that we have a major opportunity to make progress on climate change by restoring degraded U.S. forests and soils. If we reduce logging and unsustainable uses of wood, we can increase the rate at which our forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ensure that it will remain stored in healthy forests.
An undervalued resource
At the 2015 Paris climate conference, the United States and 196 other nations agreed to combat climate change by cutting their greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris 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. But the agreement calls for steps only to protect and restore tropical forests.
These forests clearly are important. They hold such enormous amounts of carbon that if they were a country, their emissions from logging and forest clearing would rank them as the world’s third-largest source, behind China and the United States.
But these activities are also having a serious and little-recognized impact in the United States. Net U.S. forest growth each year removes an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equal to 11 to 13 percent of our fossil fuel emissions. This is only about half of the average carbon uptake by forests worldwide. In other words, U.S. forests are much less effective at capturing and storing carbon relative to our fossil fuel emissions than forests globally.
The greatest contribution to this gap is logging. We are cutting trees in the United States at a rate that has reduced the carbon storage potential of U.S. forests by 42 percent of its potential. Recent satellite images show that the southeastern United States has the highest forest disturbance rate in the world.
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