News | November 1, 2021

Guest column: Protecting our forests is a Southern climate change solution

Aerial shot of a pine tree forest that has been destroyed from deforestation.
By: Senior Attorney Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s Forest and National Parks Program

This week, some of the world’s most influential leaders will meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference to discuss how their countries can mitigate the growing impacts of a warming world. Even though the conference is happening thousands of miles away, one of the most important tools in fighting the climate crisis is right here in the American South.

Millions of acres of forests blanket our region, both on vast public lands and in privately-owned tracts. These areas have tremendous value: they provide clean drinking water, habitat for wildlife, and an immeasurable number of recreational opportunities. But perhaps one of their biggest assets is their role in a climate change solution.

The South’s sweeping forests hold massive amounts of carbon and prevent it from entering the atmosphere. In all, the U.S.  Forest Service estimates that the country’s national forests and grasslands hold 13 billion tons of carbon. Fully utilizing these incredible carbon sinks is the most straightforward and cost-effective climate solution available to us. 

SELC is leading the way to protect our Southern Appalachian forests

The key to this solution is restoring and protecting important old-growth forests. The 200- to 300-year-old trees that make up these special areas store centuries’ worth of carbon and are continuing to pull it from the atmosphere – but they could do so much more if we allow them to recover from past timbering.

Southern forests have been logged heavily and continue to face pressure for extraction, including on federal lands. The U.S. is lucky to have more old growth forests than most other developed nations, and that gives our leaders an incredible opportunity to store carbon while also protecting habitat for rare wildlife threatened by climate change. To do that, federal leaders must immediately act to halt logging in these crucial, publicly-owned forests.

But reckless logging in public lands isn’t the only threat facing the South’s carbon sinks. Valuable, carbon-rich forests on private land are also being threatened by a dangerous and fast-growing industry.

The biomass energy industry relies predominately on trees – often cut from the South’s large tracts of forestlands – that are turned into wood pellets and burned at utility scale for power. Biomass companies claim this is ‘clean energy,’ but the truth is that burning forests for power emits more greenhouse gases than burning coal. Those emissions are compounded by the millions of tons of carbon released when the trees are logged and processed, and they will certainly worsen the impacts of climate change – hurting people in the South and around the world. 

Help us cut carbon, not forests: Sign the petition to stop biomass

We are already seeing the impact of bad biomass energy policies overseas. The UK – who is hosting this week’s important climate talks – is the largest user of biomass energy in the world. The country gives biomass companies billions in government subsidies every year, even though the power plants undermine the country’s climate goals. A recent study showed that U.S.-sourced wood pellets burned in the UK are responsible for up to 16 million tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. must not make the same mistakes as Europe, and our leaders should commit to not providing this dangerous industry with subsidies or incentives.

The impacts of climate change are already becoming apparent and, as world leaders gather in Glasgow this week, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to lead the fight against it. President Biden and his administration should take advantage of this moment by enacting these critical policies and using the South’s remarkable, carbon-trapping forests to their full potential.