Proforestation: Nature’s Climate Solution

On May 14th, I was invited to speak at a conference hosted by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) entitled: “Growing the Impact of Forest-Based Natural Climate Solutions in North America.” The other featured presenters included The Nature Conservancy, NWF, and the American Forest Foundation. Much of the focus was on how to improve logging practices, but I was there to speak about a new scientific concept, proforestation.

Proforestation refers to the practice of protecting existing natural forests from human disturbance, which is the most effective forest-based climate solution.

I grew up in the world’s largest wood producing region — the Coastal Plain of the US South. I’ve witnessed first hand the large-scale forest degradation that has followed in the wake of an ever-expanding wood products industry. I’ve dedicated my entire adult career to protecting forests in this region. It hasn’t been easy.

I spent most of my career focused on improving forest management, with some success. Then about 7 years ago, when the wood pellet industry started to expand across the South, I realized that it’s impossible to do “better logging” which requires leaving more trees in the ground, while simultaneously expanding wood markets. The current rate and scale of logging is unsustainable and we need to scale up the protection of forests, not just try to improve logging around the edges.

Today, 200 climate scientists across the US signed a letter that was sent to members of Congress urging them to oppose legislative proposals that would promote logging and wood consumption as a natural climate change solution, based on claims that it represents an effective carbon storage approach, or claims that biomass logging, and incinerating trees for energy, represents renewable, carbon-neutral energy.

Instead they call for a major scale up in the protection of existing natural forests, stating “We find no scientific evidence to support increased logging to store more carbon in wood products, such as dimensional lumber or cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall buildings, as a natural climate solution. The growing consensus of scientific findings is that, to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we must not only move beyond fossil fuel consumption but must also substantially increase protection of our native forests in order to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere and store more, not less, carbon in our forests.”

Proforestation is the only “natural climate solution” that gives natural “working” forests, which make up a majority of forests in the US and a substantial amount of forests in Canada, a break so they can help heal the planet, slowing climate change, optimizing climate resiliency, and restoring biodiversity.

Proforestation: Nature's Climate Solution

New terms often arise and take root in times of change. For example all of a sudden, “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” have become a part of the global vernacular. These terms have helped to shape both government policies and had a dramatic impact on human behavior. I’m hopeful that proforestation will have a similar impact on forest climate policy and behavior.

The science is clear that in order to avoid climate chaos, we must not only drastically cut emissions but actively remove large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere. Forests are our best hope.

But to be effective, we must confront some uncomfortable truths about how much damage we have already done and continue to do to forests. We have to be willing and open to changing cultural norms.

According to Dr. Bill Moomaw who coined the term, “proforestation” means growing intact existing forests to their ecological potential.

That essentially means letting nature do its job uninterrupted by humans. It is the quickest and most reliable solution for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s based on the scientific understanding that:

  • as forests grow they absorb and store increasing amounts of carbon
  • when a forest is cut down it takes decades, up to a century, for it to reabsorb the carbon that was lost
  • natural forests are better at removing and storing carbon than plantations.

By its very definition proforestation recognizes that managed, working forests – large-scale commercial logging, has impacts on carbon sinks. When forests are disturbed, carbon is released – whether it’s due to wildfire, insects, wind damage, conversion to agriculture or development, or logging.

The term proforestation draws our attention to existing standing forests as our best hope for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere in the shortest period of time.

Many models intended to assess the potential of forests as a climate solution fail to model what would happen if we were to protect large areas of natural forests from logging. Instead, they focus on “afforestation”,“reforestation” or “improved forest management” all of which have benefits but not as large or as quick as letting existing natural forests grow.

In 2017 Dr. Bill Moomaw and I wrote “The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency” to highlight the importance of scaling up the protection of US forests as a climate solution.

The cultural norms and policies in the developed world are biased towards sustaining the production and consumption of wood products. These norms are propped up by a deeply held belief that forests are a “renewable” resource and that retaining forests on the land, even in a degraded condition, is the primary goal because it’s better than no forests at all. In writing this report, Dr. Moomaw and I began to identify a large body of scientific research that documented how logging US forests is a significant contributor to climate change. It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. But if we fail to acknowledge this, we will develop faulty or insufficient solutions that allow the problem to persist or worsen.

Most people working on forests know how important remaining intact old growth forests are. We’ve already lost 80% of the World’s original, intact forests and we cannot afford to lose any more.

These are forests that have already grown to their ecological potential: they are providing optimal climate and other ecosystem benefits. By protecting them, we can ensure their climate benefits are not lost or degraded. But protecting intact forests will not result in any additional climate benefit beyond what they currently do, and we know we need forests to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere.

The loss of intact old forests releases vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Some forests are now in agriculture or development, but a majority have regenerated, though they are now younger and highly fragmented. These regenerated forests exist in a degraded state compared to what they once were.

By 1990, intact forests across the continental US had largely been wiped out. It is estimated that 60% of the carbon lost has yet to be recovered by forest regrowth. Yet when we measure and report on forest carbon today through the annual EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the government uses a 1990 baseline. This essentially erases this history and its climate impacts from the accounting and from our memories.

Old Growth from 1620 to 1990
Old growth from 1620 to 1990, most has been lost and none of these logging emissions have ever been accounted for.

The current forest carbon accounting system allows us to measure progress against a baseline of forest carbon degradation vs forest carbon optimization.

It creates a double standard where we tell other countries that protecting their intact forests is vital, while escaping accountability for destroying our own. When we say “forests are renewable,” it’s a half-truth because we haven’t been renewing intact, old forests and the carbon they once stored. Instead we have a patchwork of degraded carbon sinks as reflected by young forests, clearcuts, and pine plantations.

In addition, our greenhouse gas inventory fails to report the level of carbon emissions from forests.

It only reports on year to year net changes in carbon flux. The problem with this is that we can’t see how various drivers of forest carbon loss are affecting the sum total. While this important information is missing, the framework does count carbon stored in wood products. This suggests that wood products are helping increase carbon sinks, but the reality is that the amount of carbon lost in the forest from logging far exceeds any carbon that may be stored in wood products.

Recent data compiled from satellite imagery documents that logging is in fact the largest single driver of forest carbon loss in the US.

Research conducted in 2016 found that logging was releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere while also degrading the US carbon sink by 35%.

This information is vital to understanding the potential protecting forests from logging has as a climate solution. The reality is that emissions could be avoided, and the forest carbon sink in the US could be much larger with compounding benefits each year if we weren’t logging at the rate and scale that we are.

Primary causes of tree cover loss in North America
Logging is the primary cause of tree cover loss in North America.

It’s also important to recognize other impacts that the forest industry has. For example, the pollution associated with the production of many wood products, contributes to health problems of nearby residents and disproportionately affects low income communities and communities of color. The degradation of forests is also compromising other ecological services like natural flood control, biodiversity, and water protection.

And while many tend to focus on the economic benefits of the wood products industry, we also need to be willing to acknowledge the economic trade-offs, costs, and inequities that are pervasive.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “What we do to the forests of the world is a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and each other.”

An article published in Nature in 2018 underscores that too often in the climate conversation about forests, the focus on on only half the problem, deforestation, ignoring the huge climate impacts of “forest management” (aka logging). This study documented how much more carbon we could remove from the atmosphere and store in forests if we were to stop logging and adopted proforestation as a solution. Low carbon stock forests such as those found in areas where logging rates are high (like the Southern US) would move to high carbon stocks, pulling increasing amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.

Letting natural forests grow intact to their biological potential is the most effective way to achieve climate goals in the shortest period of time.

In advocating for proforestation, we are not “against all logging or all wood products.” It simply means that we need to acknowledge that the current rate and scale of industrial logging and the production and consumption of wood products are limiting our ability to maximize forests as a climate solution and take aggressive steps to address it.

Unfortunately, most government policies today are currently focused on tree planting, wildfire prevention via logging, avoiding deforestation, and expanding wood products as natural climate solutions. We must embrace proforestation as a priority. Nature knows how to stabilize the climate better than humans do. To advance a proforestation policy agenda, we must:

  • Acknowledge, report on, and set targets for reducing CO2 emissions from forests and expanding natural forest carbon sinks.
  • Protect public lands and acquire new public lands.
  • Change tax structures and regulations to focus on greater protection and lighter touch logging (smaller scale production and less waste).
  • Support a just transition away from large-scale industrial logging and invest in diverse, local economies that create equity and resiliency.

Scientists are calling for rapid transformation across all industrial sectors. That includes the forestry sector. Substituting wood for plastic, steel, or coal and expanding our extraction of wood from forests is not the answer.

We need deep and far-reaching transformation on the ground in the forest. That means we need to reduce the human footprint in the forest, not grow it.

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