Seeing the carbon for the trees

As U.S. officials put the final touches on our national strategy for the COP21 climate talks in Paris, it is essential that one homegrown climate solution is not overlooked—America’s forests. The last five years have seen unprecedented investment in high barrier climate solutions like renewable energy with incredible success, so why not grab the readily accessible potential waiting in our own country? Forests are nature’s scrubbing devices, so good at pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that U.S. forests capture 15 percent or more of our carbon emissions annually. How much is that? More than all the carbon reductions projected under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.   

Despite this immense impact on climate, forests are too often treated as a second tier climate solution. When policy attention is given to forests, it is often focused on tropical forests in other countries, through “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD). This is based on the assumption that U.S. forests will continue to provide huge carbon reductions without any special action, and that all the potential loss of forest carbon is in developing countries. 

Numerous studies from the public and private sectors, including the U.S. Forest Service, have shattered this notion. A new report[] released just this month, states that U.S. forests could level off as a carbon sink within the next 25 years. That would be devastating to our climate future. 

These scientists see a complex snarl of stressors that will drive this forest carbon loss, including conversion of private forests for development or agriculture, increasing wildfire so intense it permanently impairs growth, rising forest pests and diseases, and more. Climate change is accelerating many of these stressors, placing our forests at risk when we need them the most. 

With over half of U.S. forests in private hands, the majority of our forest carbon sink will be determined by corporate timberland managers, family forest owners, and other private actors. A new report from the American Forest Foundation reveals that even in the rural West, long perceived as a federally controlled landscape, the most essential public water supply areas and most fire prone forests have substantial private ownership. We can’t mobilize western forests for climate change without an unprecedented public-private partnership. 

This brings us back to those Paris talks.

Already, President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the building blocks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have taken steps to help private landowners conserve, restore, and adaptively manage forests through the changes ahead. These positive steps range from science investments to helping landowners anticipate shifts in the forests they manage, to refinements in existing cost-share programs. The administration has also taken creative steps to encourage broader use of wood as a building material, which has substantial net carbon benefits.  

At the same time, some states like California have created market-driven opportunities for investment in our forests through carbon offset markets. It is likely that many states will follow suit as they seek to comply with the new EPA Clean Power Plan—a key complement to federal action. But still more can be done. 

Now is the time to make a real impact on the carbon in our forests. As the administration and Congress attend the COP21, they need to re-examine our overall level of investment in U.S. forests and how we are positioning forests within U.S. international commitments. Just as we have seen with solar and wind power, a wave of “go big or go home” investment to catalyze this climate solution could offer huge carbon gains. Perhaps more than any other climate solution, investing in forests will also bring a wave of co-benefits, like protecting our public water supplies that stack neatly on top of carbon benefits. This historic inflection point for climate action is the right time to unlock this triple bottom-line climate solution in our backyard. 

Hite is the American Forest Foundation’s executive vice president of the American Tree Farm System, Woodlands, and Policy. Daley is the director of The Trust for Public Land's Climate Conservation Program.