All About Forest Carbon In North Carolina

North Carolina has 19 million acres of forest, which store nearly 1.3 trillion tons of carbon. While this sounds impressive, logging destroys forest carbon in North Carolina each year. Logging is third in the state’s carbon emissions, behind electricity and transportation. Logging degrades our carbon stores, forest quality, and resilience to future natural disasters. Yet, the true costs of logging hide in forest “net growth” – that a forest is growing more than it’s cut.

Need all the details? We’ve put together a two-part report (Part 1: Forest Carbon Accounting; Part 2: Climate Impacts and Smart Solutions). But if you’re looking for an overview — keep reading! We’ve got all the info right here.

A Quick Guide To Forest Carbon In North Carolina

  • Climate change is reducing our ability to respond to natural disasters. Climate change brings increasing heat stress, flooding events, long term drought, loss of wildlife, and more.
  • Healthy, standing forests are a great buffer to the worst impacts of climate change. Standing forests filter our water, stop floods, protect wildlife, and moderate temperature.
  • Logging is harming North Carolina forests and the human communities that depend on them. Logging reduces water quality and heats up soils. Nearly half of all forest fire ignitions in North Carolina were due to logging.
  • Logging is the third largest source of carbon emissions in North Carolina. It is just behind electricity and  transportation. The effects of logging on carbon storage last for decades, and degrade forest health.
  • We must focus on “proforestation” – the act of letting trees grow to ecological maturity.
  • We need to update North Carolina laws to bring forestry into the 21st century. We must hold the forest products industry accountable for their carbon emissions. Forestry practices must preserve forest carbon during this critical climate period.
A one degree increase in temperature can increase emergency room visits by 15.8%

How Will Climate Change Affect North Carolina?

Global warming has already brought profound changes to North Carolina. Projected changes include heat stress, flooding, droughts, water shortages, pollution, wildfires, natural disasters, invasive species, disease, and loss of biodiversity. Climate change will make our communities less resilient to bumps in the road. Hurricanes will get stronger, droughts will get longer, and we will experience new pests and diseases.

Climate Change Will Increase Emergency Room Visits In North Carolina

By 2100, the average temperature will increase by 2°F to 10°F compared to the average temperature for 1996–2015. In North Carolina, there are fifteen additional visits to the emergency room for every degree increase in temperature above 98°F. These extra ER visits are from seniors, those without air conditioning, and those who work outdoors.

Climate Change Will Increase Flood Damages In North Carolina

only a fraction of NC and SC homes have flood insurance that need it

Flooding is also a serious concern for North Carolinians. Millions of Carolina homes may flood from storm surges and sea level rise. A New York Times report found that only 335,000 homes in the Carolinas had flood insurance.

How Logging Is Harming North Carolina Forests

Standing natural forests can help with the issues that climate change brings. They can moderate regional temperatures and reduce the chance of severe flooding. Forests also absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere. Almost 19 million acres of North Carolina forests provide many “ecosystem services.” Ecosystem services are what forests do for us: like filtering water, cleaning air, and more.

The Forest Products Industry In North Carolina Is Huge

Unfortunately, most NC forests are at risk of being clearcut to feed the need for cheap timber and pulp. North Carolina is the epicenter of wood pellet production in the United States. Wood pellet companies ship wood pellets from NC overseas to burn in the name of “renewable” energy. Logging in NC also feeds the other major forest product industries: paper (pulp) and timber.

The forest products industry logs 200,000 acres of forests in North Carolina each year. The wood pellet industry alone clearcuts 60,000 acres of NC forests per year — about 164 acres per day. North Carolina lost about 70,000 acres of forests from 2015-2018. Logging is so frequent in North Carolina that, in any given year, around 8% of the state’s forests are in a “carbon sequestration dead zone”. These forests become carbon emitters for up to 13 years after being clearcut.

Logging Is The #3 Carbon Emitter in North Carolina

With so much logging in North Carolina, it’s no surprise that emissions from logging rank third in the state. So, why have you never heard about this industry’s dirty emissions? It’s because governments count carbon emissions from logging in the “land use” ledger. This is separate from electricity and transportation. This must change.

Adjusted Green House Gas inventory when logging impacts are included

logging creates huge increases in sedimentation

Logging Changes A Forest – Forever

A forest isn’t guaranteed to grow back when it’s logged. It can take decades, even centuries, to make up for what a forest loses in a clearcut. Logging uses heavy machinery that compresses the soil. Compressed soil doesn’t clean or absorb water the way that it should. It’s like squeezing a sponge and expecting it to absorb – not spit out – water.

Logging also causes soils to break apart at the edges. When rain happens, it can pick up small particles which end up in rivers. This is “sedimentation” — and logging increases the amount of sedimentation in nearby waterways.

In a natural system, forests follow something called gap dynamics. Mature forests have closed canopies — the sky is all covered by leaves. If a tree falls, it creates a “gap” in the canopy — a place where direct sunlight can get through. This activates seeds of new plants, which grow in to fill the gap. They can handle direct sunlight, and so they grow first. They’re then followed by trees which will close the gap.

logging heats up the soil

These gaps are the size of a tree and its canopy. If a tornado comes through, there may be a larger gap or gash. Logging, in contrast, will clear tens to hundreds of acres at a time. That’s a really, really big tornado. Our forest soils can’t handle that kind of disturbance. They heat up and dry out, killing many of the high quality seeds that could grow a new forest. Soils in clearcuts can heat up to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Every gardener knows: hot and dry soils don’t grow plants very well.

30 foot buffers are not enough to protect water quality

Logging Destroys Water Quality In And Near A Forest

Logging companies have a set of voluntary practices to protect water quality in the surrounding rivers and streams. These Best Management Practices (BMPs) do not completely protect water quality. A study of one logging project found higher pollution levels even fifteen months after the logging had ceased.

Problematic algal blooms started at the site only after logging. The loggers followed BMPs, which required a 33 foot (10 meter) buffer between the logging and the nearby water. It’s clear that the state-recommended 30 foot buffer isn’t enough to protect our water.

Logging Erodes Forest Carbon Stores In North Carolina

Logging doesn’t only change the function of a forest. It also erodes carbon stores in a way that may take decades or centuries to fix. When forests are new, they don’t have very much carbon stored at all – but as they age, they accumulate carbon. We know that natural forests are best at storing carbon. Natural forests store 50% more carbon than planted “forests” – usually plantations.

If we use forests for carbon storage instead of logging, it would benefit us all. Although getting rid of logging is impossible, if we did, the carbon benefit would be equal to about 20 years of NC’s gross carbon emissions. North Carolina forests could store an extra 3 gigatonnes of CO2e. Most of those carbon savings would come from climate-smart forestry practices on private lands.

NC Needs a Forest Climate Solution

There are lots of issues around logging and forest carbon in North Carolina. But, there are also many ways to improve forest carbon in North Carolina.

What Can We Do To Improve Forest Carbon In North Carolina?

Many studies support the idea that intense logging in NC is making climate change worse. North Carolina could bring forestry practices into the 21st century by improving policies. This would ensure a safer future for all North Carolinians, especially those living in central and eastern NC where logging is common.

Proforestation Is Key To Solving Climate Change

Proforestation is a new take on an old concept: “let the forests grow.” It’s all about encouraging our forests to grow to ecological maturity. If you ask any child “how old can a tree get?”, they’ll tell you that a tree can be hundreds of years old. But in the US South, over half of all forest stands are less than 40 years old. Adopting proforestation principles can address this discrepancy. Proforestation should be easy to apply to North Carolina forests through policy reform.

Our report shows that climate policies must protect all older forests from logging. Since most old forests in North Carolina are already on public lands, NC can take action. Protecting older forests from logging is an easy way to practice proforestation.

We should also help younger, degraded forest stands develop old-growth characteristics. Old-growth forests tend to have trees of many different shapes and ages. They have standing dead wood providing homes to many different birds and mammals. You can harvest wood without clearcutting. Moving away from clearcuts can help our forests develop old-growth characteristics much faster.

Update NC’s Laws With Climate-Smart Forestry Practices For Better Forest Carbon

No one expects all logging to stop in the US South. Especially because the US South is the largest wood producing region in the world. Yet, the effects of climate change are far-reaching, and we must address them before it is too late. And, logging is a major contributor to climate change. To prevent further damages, we must introduce climate-smart forestry practices across the state.

Currently, the only “restrictions” on logging are voluntary best management practices (BMPs). These BMPs focus on water quality and represent the baseline care that a logger should use. North Carolina needs to update BMPs. Or, NC needs to create common-sense restrictions on the rate, type, and scale of logging.

Hold The Forest Products Industry Accountable For Its Forest Carbon Emissions

We need to hold the forest products industry accountable for its carbon emissions. Logging emissions currently get placed in the “land use change / forestry” category of carbon accounting. This is a “get out of jail free” card for the forest products industry. They are able to hide their emissions behind the existing forest carbon stores. Hidden emissions include emissions from transporting, cutting, and processing wood.

When those emissions are actually counted, it’s big. They rank third in NC’s carbon emissions ledger, behind electricity generation and transportation. We must change this practice.

Infographic that shows the climate impact of industrial logging in NC. Reads: North Carolina is Clearcutting a Critical Climate Solution. 500,000 truckloads of timber are removed from North Carolina forests every year. Logging in North Carolian releases 44 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That's equivalent to the annual climate impact of over 9 million cars on the road, making industrial logging the state's third most carbon intensive sector, just after electricity and transportation.

First, we need to revise the state’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory reporting process. This will separate emissions from the wood products industry into its own category. That way, the forest products industry can’t rely on forest growth to hide their dirty laundry.

What You Can Do For Forest Carbon In North Carolina

Are you ready to take action? You can help us improve forest carbon in North Carolina. You can impact the lives of millions of North Carolinians. Sign our latest petition to Governor Cooper. This petition asks him to respond to the carbon emissions coming from the forest products industry. Head to our Act Now page to see other steps you can take to help North Carolina’s forests.

12 Responses to “All About Forest Carbon In North Carolina”

  1. Simon Blick

    Hi Sam,

    Do you have any data that accurately estimates the carbon sequestration rates per hectare, of typical forest species in NC?

    Greatly appreciate your feedback.

    Simon Blick

    • Sam Davis

      Hi Simon,

      You can check the US Forest Service’s FIA database and EVALIDATOR tool to estimate carbon sequestration in NC forests.




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