America's forests can help fight climate change

America's forests can help fight climate change
© Getty Images

It’s been encouraging during Climate Week to hear the global conversation around climate focused on solutions. We are hearing from businesses, mayors, philanthropists and more about their commitments to reduce emissions. I hope it has elevated the urgency for Congress to develop complementary legislation that will take our country’s emissions to where we want to be in 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

Whether it is a comprehensive climate package or other smaller, more near-term mechanisms, our policymakers should look to America’s forests as one of the most essential pieces of a climate solution that can be tapped into immediately in a cost-effective way.

recent IPCC report highlighted the critical role that sustainable land use — including forestry — plays in tackling climate change. In the U.S., forests occupy more than 760 million acres and serve as our nation's largest terrestrial carbon sink, offsetting 11.3 percent of our country’s annual carbon emissions. Recent studies point to the potential of at least doubling this carbon capturing benefit with the right incentives. 

ADVERTISEMENT

However, this carbon benefit is not always guaranteed. Ongoing drought, catastrophic wildfires, devastating storms and hurricanes, insect epidemics and more are putting pressure on this forest sink, and could potentially harm its ability to continue, let alone, increase, its carbon intake.

To care for our carbon sink and capitalize on it as a climate mitigation strategy, we must engage the group that owns the largest portion (38 percent) of America’s forests: families and individuals. Congress can enable these millions of families to contribute to climate mitigation goals in a way that will work for them and the environment.

It’s well established that healthy, sustainably managed forests play a significant role in sequestering more carbon. Yet, not all family landowners are actively caring for their land as they could. This is in large part because they face barriers such as lack of technical expertise, cost of forest management and dwindling markets for wood.

Congress can create the right polices with a combination of market-based approaches and financial incentives to help families overcome these barriers and maximize the carbon potential of their forests. And what’s more, supporting family forest owners in good forest management also produces other co-benefits such as supporting rural communities with income and jobs, and sustaining and improving vital habitat and clean water infrastructure.

Specifically, Congress must continue to fund and expand programs that support good forest stewardship. Already, thanks to the farm bill, we have seen that programs that support landowners are fruitful. They encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests and avoid conversion to non-forest uses, such as shopping malls and parking lots. It helps them reforest deforested or understocked areas; and engages family landowners in forest practices that produce carbon benefits.

ADVERTISEMENT

In addition, there are opportunities to develop policies and programs that encourage collaboration with the conservation community and leverage existing private funds with public funds to maximize investments. This makes forestry a cost-effective option that doesn’t include a large price tag to reducing the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Last, as Congress works through options such as cap and trade, a carbon tax, or any other climate policy mechanisms, there must be an opportunity for forests, especially family forests, to contribute carbon reductions and receive the appropriate financial incentives in return. Current carbon market approaches do not work for most family forest owners.

In fact, if a forest owner has less than 5,000 acres, it’s nearly impossible to participate in existing market. Since most of the family forest acres are in tracts of less than 5,000 acres, this means tapping these forests for their carbon benefits is not on the table under this policy and market structure. Exploring other options, such as the approach being piloted through the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy’s new Family Forest Carbon Program, would produce the clear, measurable and verifiable carbon benefits needed.

With a narrow window to address the climate crisis, family-owned forests offer a cost-effective solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that goes hand in hand with continued economic growth for rural America, delivering real impact today and well into the future. 

Tom Martin is president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.