Rural North Carolina: An International Battleground on Forests and Climate Change
Today, most people understand that transitioning away from fossil fuels toward clean energy is essential to solving the climate crisis. Despite the fact that the Trump administration pulled out of the historic Paris Agreement, it’s been inspiring to see the flurry of activity on the part of states, municipalities and corporations across the nation committed to ensuring the U.S. does its part to meet the ambitious goals by committing to transition toward 100 percent clean energy.
While this is certainly encouraging, we must face a harsh reality. Essential, getting off fossil fuels won’t be enough. Every scientific model I have seen proposing pathways to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius includes both a rapid reduction in carbon emissions and a dramatic increase in the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere.
Standing natural forests are the only proven system that can operate at the scale necessary to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere within the timeframe necessary to avoid climate catastrophe. Equally as important, standing forests provide a safety net that can mitigate the effects of extreme weather events by providing natural flood control, a stable supply of fresh water and natural air conditioning.
While forest protection emerged as a global priority in the Paris Agreement, it has yet to be fully embraced as critical to the U.S. climate agenda even though our nation is the world’s largest producer and consumer of wood products. Logging rates in the Southeastern region alone are four times that of South American rainforests.
In March, world renowned climate scientist, Dr. William Moomaw of Tufts University, and I released a report entitled The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency to elevate forest protection as a priority climate issue in the U.S. Among other things, the report highlights that annual carbon emissions from 2006 to 2010 from logging for paper and wood products exceeded the combined fossil fuel emissions from the residential and commercial sectors. Logging also reduced U.S. forests’ ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere by at least 35 percent.
The rate and scale of logging in the U.S. is also degrading our forests ability to provide natural protection from extreme weather events. In fact, two of five of the world’s the most expensive natural disasters of 2016 were due to flooding events in rural communities along rivers in the Southeastern coastal region of the U.S. where logging rates are among the highest on Earth. And while U.S. forest products markets are the strongest in the world, many of the rural communities bearing the brunt of the impacts of industrial logging are disproportionately African-American communities struggling with high poverty rates. Forest protection is not only an issue of climate science, it is also an issue of climate justice.
Over the past few years, the situation has gotten worse as the U.S. became the global leader in exporting wood pellets to fuel power stations in Europe. Concerned citizens in the small, rural community of Richmond County, North Carolina are on the front-lines of this latest climate battle, where the world’s largest wood pellet exporter, a company called Enviva, is planning to build its fourth wood pellet export mill in the state.
If constructed, this mill will destroy an additional 50 acres of forests on average every day, while also fueling the acceleration of carbon emissions at power plants in Europe, as burning wood releases up to 50 percent more carbon than coal per unit of electricity generated. It will also release harmful pollutants into the air in a community already suffering from high rates of asthma and other health problems from other nearby polluting industries.
A diverse movement in the U.S. is focused on pushing back this destructive industry, advancing an aggressive forest protection agenda and calling for new economic models that leave more forest standing in our rural communities. Conservation organizations, scientists, lawyers, and philanthropists and foundations, like Louis Bacon‘s Orton Foundation are standing up with the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County to stop Enviva from building this wood pellet mill. With legal challenges to the permit underway, a diverse grassroots movement joining forces, and a newly elected Governor committed to ensuring the state does its part to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, this effort has all the elements of a winning campaign.
In many ways, the struggle in this small, rural community is a line in the sand, a clear signal that ongoing forest destruction, pollution and climate injustice in the rural South will be met with increasing resistance. In addition to clean energy, it’s time to put the protection of our forests and the health, safety and prosperity of our most vulnerable communities at the forefront of our nation’s climate agenda.
Click here to take action: https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/actions/rise-up/
Danna Smith is the founder of Dogwood Alliance. For 20 years, she has been at the forefront of forest protection in the U.S., leading hard-hitting campaigns and negotiating ground-breaking forest protection commitments from some of the largest companies in the world. She is a leading voice connecting the dots between climate change, forest destruction and social justice and pushing for forest protection in the US at a scale necessary to meet the sustainability challenges of the 21st Century. She holds a law degree from Emory University.