US climate policy must protect forests and communities, not the forest industry

By Danna Smith, Opinion Contributor — 03/21/19
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Cknezie Bridge, United States - thanks to Eric Sanman

The introduction of The Green New Deal resolution and the appointment of a House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has propelled climate change back into the national policy debate. That’s why today, on the International Day of Forests, hundreds of citizens across the nation are urging members of Congress to stand up and protect America’s forests and to hold the US forest industry accountable for its contribution to climate change.

Forests play a vital, yet often misunderstood, role in solving the climate crisis. When disturbed they release carbon, but when left to grow they actively pull carbon out of the air and store it while simultaneously cooling the air, providing natural flood control, stabilizing fresh water supplies and supporting biodiversity.

As the climate movement in the US recognizes that a bold and comprehensive approach is critical to solving the climate crisis, forests are finally getting on the national climate policy radar. For example, the Green New Deal resolution specifically calls for the preservation of forests as key to removing carbon from the atmosphere, supporting biodiversity and creating climate resiliency.

And while this is certainly encouraging, the harsh reality is that the U.S. is the world’s largest wood consuming and producing nation. The rate and scale of logging in the Southeastern U.S. alone is approximately four times that of South American rainforests. Protecting forests within this context is a challenge.

The U.S. manufactures approximately $300 billion in wood products annually, accounting for about 4.5 percent of manufacturing GDP, on par with the nation’s automotive and plastics industries. Remember how the automotive industry helped killed the electric car back in the mid-1990s? It took nearly 20 years and the passage of new fuel efficiency standards to get an electric car back on the assembly line.

We don’t have time now for these kinds of industry delay tactics or green smoke screens. The large-scale industrial logging of forests in the U.S. poses one of the largest threats to climate progress.

Though the industrial forest industry is far from green it often promotes itself as such. Like other destructive industries it uses distraction tactics, pointing to climate change, wildfire and insects for “killing trees” as releasing massive amounts of carbon while the single largest driver of carbon emissions from tree mortality is, by far, logging.

Some claim that expanding production of wood products can help create “equitable” “green” jobs for low-income rural communities. But, the reality is that, much like the fossil fuel industry, pollution, racial inequity and economic distress are pervasive across the rural South where industrial logging and large wood manufacturing facilities are concentrated.

We’ve seen this kind of strategy before with coal industry attempts to promote “clean coal” and insist that climate change itself is caused by natural cycles. The industrial forest industry is engaged in a new form of climate science denial – acknowledging that climate change is real, claiming forests are a “natural solution” and insisting that industrial-scale destruction of forests for wood products is climate friendly.

Fortunately, citizens, scientists and organizations from the redwoods of California to the wetland forests of North Carolina have been fighting hard, challenging the forest industry in court, in the marketplace and in the public policy arena. Over decades, progress has been steady but insufficient in the face of government policies at every level that encourage, subsidize and permit destructive logging.

The latest example is a suite of government climate policies and subsidies that have facilitated a rapid expansion in the production of wood pellets as a “renewable,” “carbon neutral” fuel substitution for coal in electricity generation. Meanwhile, leading climate scientists warn that burning wood will exacerbate climate change, releasing even more CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal and further degrade vital forest carbon sinks.

Though Democrats are widely viewed as climate allies, even they ignore scientific warnings and side with the forest industry. For example, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in North Carolina, who signed an executive order on Climate Change in 2018, has repeatedly ignored the concerns of scientists, health advocates, front-line communities and conservation organizations, failing to take action to stop the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, Enviva, from continued expansion throughout the state. Enviva is not only increasing pollution but also clearcutting critical wetland forests in economically-depressed, rural communities bearing the brunt of the impacts of recent extreme flooding.

Even Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who championed the Green New Deal, has consistently supported a rider in a spending bill declaring burning trees as “carbon neutral,” Perhaps this year he will vote against such policies as they stand in direct contradiction with both the goals of the Green New Deal and climate science.

In addition to fuel, wood is often promoted as a “climate friendly” substitute for steel in building skyscrapers, a source of “renewable” fuel for the aviation industry, as a “natural” fiber material for clothing and as a “biodegradable” alternative to plastics (i.e. bags and straws.) Yet, the reality is that keeping forest carbon in the ground is as important as keeping fossil fuel carbon in the ground.

From developing and setting targets to reduce carbon emissions from logging, to embracing new economic incentives and regulation that drive greater protection of wetland forests along rivers, for example, we can help protect communities from the worst impacts of climate change, while simultaneously, creating conservation-based jobs that support healthy, resilient rural economies. Through policies and incentives that eliminate wasteful consumption of wood and paper products, we can transition away from industrial-scale, destruction of forests to ecologically-based forestry focused on retaining more forest cover and allowing natural forests to grow old.

That’s why on this day, as we celebrate the fact that U.S. forests are finally being included in the conversation about federal climate policy, citizens across the nation are calling members of Congress with a simple message: climate leadership requires an acknowledgement and commitment to address the climate impacts of the forest industry. With over 200 organizations, scientists and elected officials already signed on to the Stand4forest platform, developed by a diverse coalition from across the nation last year, it’s time for members of Congress to decide where they stand. Will they stand for forests, communities and climate justice or with the forest industry?

Danna Smith is Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance.