The global urgency for “all of the above” climate action, driven by the acceleration of climate impacts, is fueling unprecedented interest in forests as a climate change solution. But this increased interest has brought increased scrutiny. Can forests capture enough carbon to make a meaningful contribution? Will we lose this stored carbon to wildfires? Does harvesting timber help or hurt our forest carbon sink?
These five truths, grounded in science, can provide a common foundation for the public and decision-makers to shape America’s efforts on forests and climate change.
1. America’s forests are already providing a climate solution.
America’s forests have provided a large net carbon sink for decades. According to the 2020 U.S. EPA Greenhouse Gas inventory, U.S. forests and forest products sequestered more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in that inventory year — equal to almost 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. The upshot? Our forests are already a proven climate solution, and we need to sustain those actions in our forests that are helping to produce these strong results.
2. Step one is to keep our existing forests as forests.
More forests equate to more carbon being sequestered. That’s why our first step is to hold onto the forest cover that we have, including in cities. This won’t be easy! The U.S. Forest Service projects total urban and developed land area will increase by 39 to 69 million acres from 2010 to 2060.
There are many ways to keep our forests as forests, starting with favorable tax policies and strong forest product markets that create positive financial conditions for private forest ownership. A complementary approach is to invest in permanent protection by purchasing conservation easements from private landowners and acquiring additional forestland for public ownership. The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in 2020, and new federal efforts to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, will help significantly.
3. Planting trees = more forests to capture carbon.
Tree planting and other actions to stimulate new tree growth are the simplest way to capture more carbon in forests — potentially 40 percent or more above current levels, according to research from The Nature Conservancy. It will be essential to use climate change science to inform the selection of trees to be planted, and how they are planted, so they survive and thrive in future conditions.
4. Sometimes active forest management = more carbon gains.
To get the most carbon benefit, should we actively manage forests or just let them grow? The answer is, “It depends.” The right forestry approach for sequestering and storing the most carbon is site-specific, including whether a forest is at high risk of mortality and wildfire in our rapidly changing climate.
These risk factors really matter, because forests are dying and burning so fast in some states across the Intermountain West that they are turning those states’ forests into a net source of carbon emissions, as illustrated in this Washington Post story. When a forest is prone to emitting its stored carbon, or slowing in its rate of carbon uptake, due to its structure and age class composition, U.S. Forest Service research shows that combining active forest management with storing carbon in forest products (see #5 below) has potential to generate greater net carbon benefit than just letting those same forests grow undisturbed.
5. Wood products store carbon and reduce emissions from manufacturing.
When timber is harvested, solid wood products can store nearly half of the carbon that was captured in a growing tree. How does that add up? In 2019, wood products contributed 103 million metric tons CO2e to carbon sequestration from U.S. forests — making these products about 14 percent of our total forest carbon sink. This is equal to the emissions of more than 21 million cars.
Manufacturing wood products also uses less energy than alternative materials like steel, creating additional greenhouse gas benefits when we choose wood. Some estimates have found nearly half of the carbon footprint of a building can be in its materials and construction, so using more wood in place of higher GHG materials is a substantial climate action opportunity.
Given this potential, it is not surprising that diverse organizations across the United States — including governments, corporations, environmental non-profits, and civil society organizations such as Girl Scouts of the USA — have joined with a new international effort called 1t.org that seeks to conserve, restore and grow 1 trillion trees by 2030. The U.S. Chapter of 1t.org has already secured more than 50 pledges totaling nearly 50 billion trees, and billions of dollars in “supporting actions,” such as technology, finance and workforce development.
With the clock ticking down on our time for climate action, let’s embrace these five basic truths about forests for climate and take action together. We can advance a balanced forest-climate strategy that has something for everyone, from better protection for old-growth forests to investment in tree planting and working forests that will help grow America’s 2.9 million forest-related jobs. We don’t have a moment to lose. Our forests are ready to help solve climate change, but only if we come together to give our forests the help they need.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.