US forests hold climate keys

The UN climate summit in Glasgow ended with more words than actions as global emissions are the second-highest on record and the world is on track for an increase of another 16 percent by 2030.

Alarmingly, global deforestation is occurring at a rate of 27 football fields every minute of each day. Recognizing this loss, President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE pledged that the United States will “help the world halt natural forest loss and restore at least an additional 494 million acres by the year 2030.”

As it stands, the Biden administration’s climate plans say nothing about ending forest losses right here at home by protecting climate-saving older forests and trees on federal lands. It’s a glaring omission that needs to be fixed.

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As scientists who have been studying forests and the climate for, collectively, more than a century, we urge Biden to safeguard mature and old-growth forests on federal lands as part of the United States’ commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

Old-growth forests are disappearing globally because of logging and land clearing. Most of the remaining older forests are in the tropics and the circumboreal forests. Very little old growth remains in the United States, and much of what is left of these towering trees has been targeted for logging. But forests on federal lands from coast to coast have been slowly maturing and will become old growth in the decades ahead if protected from chainsaws.

Older trees are nature’s carbon warehouses, storing up to 70 percent more carbon than logged and replanted forests. Through the miracle of photosynthesis, forests absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide in massive tree trunks, foliage and soils. They also cleanse the air we breathe, replenish drinking water supplies and are home to countless imperiled species.

As trees age, the rate of carbon accumulation increases continuously so keeping this carbon in the forest and not in the atmosphere is critical to reaching emissions reduction targets. However, when these forests are logged, most of that carbon is returned to the atmosphere with very little retained in short-lived wood products.

Each year logging of U.S. forests dumps some 723 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to burning more than 3.7 billion pounds of coal. U.S. emissions from logging are up to 10 times that of wildfires and insects.

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Replanting trees is not the answer as this practice typically follows clearcut logging and cannot be counted in restoration targets. Newly planted trees would take decades to centuries to make up for the carbon emitted when forests are logged. We no longer have the luxury of time in the climate emergency.

Older forests need a break from centuries of logging to build back carbon reserves and keep additional emissions out of the atmosphere. By allowing forests time to accumulate more carbon, Biden can elevate forests as nature’s climate solution and strengthen our country’s position for global leadership. Doing so would be a critical first step toward the president’s executive order to protect 30 percent of all lands and waters by 2030 to simultaneously address the climate and biodiversity crises

Thankfully, the Biden administration has taken an essential step by committing to end large-scale logging of old-growth trees on the Tongass rainforest in Alaska. The next logical step is to take older forests and trees across all federal public lands off the chopping block, especially since the infrastructure and build back better bills contain billions of dollars in federal logging subsidies.

Climate change is solvable if we act now by increasing carbon stored in natural ecosystems while we rapidly end our dependence on fossil fuels and aggressively cut emissions across all sectors, including forestry. Even as the world replaces fossil fuels with clean energy, we still need to take climate pollution out of the atmosphere and forests are best at doing this. 

Biden must now make good on his announcement at the climate summit by ending logging of older forests and trees on federal lands to show the world he practices what he preaches. 

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William Moomaw, Ph.D., is emeritus professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and Visiting Scientist Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Thomas Lovejoy, Ph. D., is a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. 

Stuart Pimm, Ph.D., is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University. 

Eric Dinerstein, Ph.D., is director of biodiversity and wildlife at RESOLVE and author of “Global deal for nature. 

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., is chief scientist at Wild Heritage and an award-winning scientist with more than 200 scientific publications and books including, Conservation Science & Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.