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America's forest sector is ready for climate action and rural America can benefit

America's forest sector is ready for climate action and rural America can benefit
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While this election demonstrates there’s still a significant divide amongst Americans on many issues, there’s a center on climate policy that is tapping America’s forests as a natural climate solution. 

America’s forest sector is ready for this moment, with deep consensus among public and private sector leaders on needed policies to grow natural carbon capture in forests and wood products, generating thousands of new jobs in the process and significant economic opportunities for rural communities and landowners. 

This hard-won consensus has been developed by the Forest-Climate Working Group (FCWG), a coalition that represents every aspect of the forest sector — private landowners, forest products and other major companies, state and federal forestry agencies, environmental NGOs, researchers and carbon finance interests — and which our organizations co-chair. The FCWG has patiently worked together since 2007 to identify needed forestry actions for climate and then translate that understanding into policy proposals that bipartisan elected officials can confidently move, knowing they have sector-wide support. 

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This week, the FCWG set the stage for the new Biden administration and 117th Congress by releasing its most detailed FCWG Policy Platform ever, aligned with four goals to grow our forest carbon sink: one, maintain and expand forest cover; two, improve forest practices for carbon, adaptation and resilience; three, advance markets for forest carbon, forest products and skilled labor; and four, enhance climate data and applied science. 

Importantly, this platform is aimed at including rural Americans as a part of the solution to climate change. Importantly rural America is quite vulnerable to the threats exacerbated by climate change. Often though programs are not designed to easily allow these people and communities to participate in addressing the challenges of climate change, our agenda gives them incentives to help them participate.

The FCWG Policy Platform contains a range of policy prescriptions under each of these goals, from appropriations priorities and tweaks to existing programs all the way to fully developed concepts for new legislation, such as a tax incentives for private forest owners to undertake forest practices that increase carbon sequestration. 

So why do America’s forests deserve such a strong role in climate action? America’s forests and forest products already sequester over 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. That is nearly 15 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, and represents by far our largest land-based carbon sink. With the right actions, our forests can do even more.

Trees and forests also slow climate change by reducing energy use in two ways. First, using forest products instead of materials that require more energy to manufacture reduces industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via the "substitution effect." Second, trees in our communities cool our homes in the summer and insulate them in the winter. According to U.S. Forest Service research, this translates to residential energy savings of just over 7 percent, reducing carbon emissions and saving households over $7 billion each year. 

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But this natural climate solution is at grave risk, because of drought, forest pests, disease and rampant wildfire all exacerbated by climate change. By way of example, recent “bad” wildfire years have spiked emissions by more than 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s why we need to mobilize a partnership between government and the private sector to undertake needed actions in our forests that will increase the amount of carbon sequestered in our forest carbon sink while simultaneously plugging leaks like wildfire. 

Achieving the four goals of the FCWG will make this happen. Our recommended policies include “carbon offense” to increase the rate of carbon uptake in our forests, such as accelerated tree planting and adjusting forest management to increase carbon capture in forests and forest products. And they equally address “carbon defense” to protect carbon stored in our forests, such as keeping our forests conserved as forests, and treating fire-prone forests with thinning and prescribed fire.  

Scaling up these forestry actions will create jobs that can’t be computerized or outsourced. Private forests in the U.S. already directly employ almost 1 million people and indirectly support another 1.5 million jobs. These private forests are owned by more than 21 million Americans who will see economic benefits from this work as well. We can build on this dramatically, on public and private lands alike. Research has shown each $1 million invested in forest restoration can support as many as 40 direct, indirect and induced jobs. Many of these new employment opportunities will benefit rural communities hardest hit by COVID-related job losses. 

In these politically tense times, climate action through forests will bring us back together. Forests offer countless co-benefits beyond carbon capture, including wildlife habitat, water security and recreation, which is why we have support for the FCWG’s policy agenda well beyond just “forest” organizations. And the actions we have proposed can provide benefits in every corner of America, from urban forests, to rural communities, to national forests.

A powerful base of forest supporters awaits bipartisan action on forests for climate, and stands ready to lend its voice and expertise. Let’s build a bridge to climate consensus out of wood.

Jad Daley is president and CEO of American Forests, the oldest national conservation organization. Tom Martin is president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, a conservation organization aimed at helping family forest owners steward their land and produce conservation impact. Both organizations serve as co-chairs of the Forest Climate Working Group.