by Rebecca White, CW Wildlands Director
Originally published in The Register-Guard, November 27, 2021.
After two weeks of often tense negotiations, the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow have concluded. What remains is to make sense of the commitments the United States, and the international community, made to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
The short answer: not enough. Climate plans submitted by 151 nations would limit warming to 2.5 degrees Celsius. But to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, scientists predict we must keep warming to under 1.5 degrees, which requires cutting worldwide carbon emissions in half by the end of this decade.
That’s a tall order.
Nations will gather again in 2022 to submit stronger emissions-reduction targets. In the meantime, the major emitters, including the U.S., must ramp up fossil fuel emissions cuts. Additional measures require signatories to curb the potent greenhouse gas methane, as well as phase out fossil fuel subsidies and “phase down” coal use.
For the first time, the Glasgow Pact explicitly recognizes the role of natural systems in reducing emissions and drawing down atmospheric carbon. In a side agreement, the U.S. committed to ending domestic deforestation by 2030. This is a big move: Ongoing deforestation in the United States has left us with the most disturbed forests on the planet. As leading climate scientists recently wrote in The Hill: “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.”
Therein lies the problem. Even as national representatives in Glasgow negotiated our planet’s future, federal agencies at home announced a series of timber sales that would log large tracts of Western Oregon’s invaluable mature and old-growth forests. Much like its proposed Flat Country logging project above the McKenzie River, which faces broad community opposition, the Willamette National Forest’s Quartzville-Middle Santiam project would log forests up to 150 years old. And two large, new timber sales on Bureau of Land Management-administered forests in the Coast Range propose logging stands up to 240 years old.
Our region’s forests are among the most carbon-rich ecosystems in the world, and logging them in the face of the climate crisis is inexcusable. In Science New, just-published research maps the location and density of Earth’s “irrecoverable carbon” — carbon locked in ecosystems that is vulnerable to release from human activities, which, if lost, could not be restored to those ecosystems by 2050. Areas of exceptionally high density of irrecoverable carbon include the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon and the Congo.
Though the popular movement to plant young trees is laudable, not all trees are equal when it comes to carbon sequestration. Older trees store up to 70% more carbon than logged and replanted forests. Large trees like those our federal government would log should not be for sale; they are too desperately needed for their climate mitigation potential, not to mention their role in providing the last refuges for much of our region’s dwindling biodiversity and safeguarding drinking water sources.
The timber sector is Oregon’s largest carbon emitter, and projects like those proposed by federal agencies are a big reason why. With a nationwide coalition of climate and conservation groups, we have called on the Biden administration to place a moratorium on logging federally managed, mature and old-growth forests nationwide. It’s time for our domestic actions to align with our international commitments for the good of our entire planet.
Rebecca White is the Wildlands Director for Cascadia Wildlands. She directs Cascadia Wildlands’ forest defense work across Oregon and the Cascadia bioregion. She writes a monthly column for The Register-Guard.