Forests have arrived as a natural climate solution. Look no further than COP26, the latest IPCC Report or President Biden’s Earth Day Executive Order and you will see serious attention to the power of forests to naturally draw down carbon emissions and shelter us from climate threats.
But a nervous undercurrent has emerged, centered on a single question: What exactly should we do to fully tap this natural climate solution?
At one level, the answer is simple. We need to think of storing carbon in forests as a high stakes game that requires great offense and defense in order to win.
That’s because the amount of carbon in our forests is significantly determined by our actions. Take planting a tree, for example. The average tree here in the U.S. will capture .62 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Do that billions of times over, and suddenly more trees equals a lot more carbon capture. In fact, one study suggests we could increase annual carbon capture roughly 40 percent by reforesting suitable lands.
But our forests are not an impregnable carbon vault. They also lose carbon through events like wildfire that are happening more frequently and more intensely thanks to climate change. That means actions we take to reduce the risk of wildfire, such as thinning and managing fire-prone forests, are a necessary defense to hold the carbon we have stored in our forests over the long term.
Our forests also face less-well known or widely understood threats. In the middle of clear examples like reforestation and forest restoration, there are more complex forest-climate strategies that we must employ to mitigate climate change.
There is a growing recognition that building with wood — including tall buildings — is a promising way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is because wood, a renewable resource, stores carbon in the built environment and requires less energy to manufacture than materials such as steel or concrete. Working forests are replanted, regrown, and regenerated after harvest, maintaining a never-ending carbon sequestration cycle.
We also need to keep our forests from becoming parking lots or being converted to non-forest uses. One study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that carbon stored in U.S. forests will decline dramatically by 2050 driven primarily by more than 30 million additional acres of forest lost to development.
To change this trajectory, we must value and conserve all types of forests — natural and working — as necessary in the fight against climate change. We need more of both, not less of either.
In Washington state, where President Biden visited last month to announce his Executive Order, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is leading the way in recognizing the value of our forests for both carbon offense and defense.
This historic presidential visit and federal action came shortly after Washington DNR launched a first-in-the-nation carbon offset initiative, which will conserve 10,000 acres of publicly-owned forestland that have unique potential to capture and store carbon — forests that otherwise would have been logged. Instead, Washington DNR will generate tens of millions of dollars via carbon credits that will fund local government services like schools and hospitals. And, in the next 10 years, these carbon credits will offset the emissions of two billion miles driven by gas-powered cars.
Projects like this one recognize and “pay” forests for the value they provide in carbon sequestration and storage. Carbon investments, along with incentivizing the use of wood products, are a critical part of achieving the state’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions and lessen the impacts of climate change.
Ready to deliver for forests? Just one more thing we must get right, and that’s the climate science behind our forestry actions. Every action, from planting and utilizing trees for societal needs to protecting old growth and reducing wildfires, must be informed by the way that climate change itself is already changing our forests. That means using climate science to understand the conditions our forests will face in the future and designing forestry actions to help forests survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
So, let’s get to work. Research shows that the needed action in our forests can generate roughly 27 jobs per million dollars invested. Just as we need all kinds of forests to win, we need all kinds of players, including governments, tribes, companies, organizations and individuals bringing their resources, time and commitment.
In our fight against climate change, the most important action we can take is to stop fighting over our forests and start fighting for our forests. This is one climate solution that we can deliver together.
Jad Daley is president and chief executive officer of American Forests, the nation’s oldest conservation non-profit. Hillary Franz is Washington state’s commissioner of public lands.