By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests
These are heady days for people in the U.S. forest sector. After a decade of trying to communicate how much forests and forest products can help solve climate change, it has been thrilling to see world and U.S. leaders quickly come to the consensus that forests can deliver as much as one-third of the emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst.
Consider these most recent developments:
- The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report focused on the urgent need to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a complement to reducing emissions, and highlighted forests as the only proven way to accomplish these “negative emissions” at scale.
- The Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco this September put forests center stage for two days, championed as a climate solution by world leaders, U.S. governors and leading scientists, as well as actors Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin. No global climate gathering in history has given forests such a prominent role.
For those of us in the U.S. forest sector, this is fantastic news. America has sometimes taken its forests for granted, and this new understanding of forests as a climate solution creates new opportunities for more supportive public policies, private investment and stronger markets for forest products.
But there is also a potential concern: many of the new converts come with only a partial understanding of the carbon dynamics in the forest sector and how our forests here in the U.S. are dramatically different from those in other countries when it comes to delivering climate change solutions.
Here are five ways to deliver America’s forests as a resilient and lasting climate solution:
1. Recognize the Current Climate Benefits of U.S. Forests
Thanks to America’s advanced standards for forestry and conservation practices, our forests and forest products already capture and store almost 16 percent of U.S. carbon emissions each year. How much is that? Equal to half of all the emissions reductions pledged by the U.S. under the Paris Climate Accord. New policies and investment should not confuse U.S. forests with other countries that are dealing with massive deforestation, often driven by poorly controlled forestry and agriculture.
2. Wood Is Good for Storing Carbon
You can think of forest products as an extension of the carbon storage capacity of forests. How much? U.S. wood products store carbon each year equivalent to almost 2 percent of U.S. emissions. This benefit becomes even more potent when you add in the emissions avoided when wood is used in place of more energy-intensive building materials like steel. That is why we must promote working forests that produce wood products as part of U.S. climate strategy.
3. Urban Forests Are Key for Climate
It might surprise you to learn that America has 130 million acres of urban forests, and that these trees capture and store carbon equivalent to more than 1.5 percent of U.S. emissions each year. Urban forests also reduce energy use for heating and cooling by 7.2% nationwide, with savings to consumers of $7.8 billion dollars. We need to rapidly scale up urban forests and target “energy saving trees” to places where they will have the most benefit.
4. Climate Stress is Killing Our Forests
From California’s mega drought to Colorado’s pine beetle infestations to the violent hurricanes that have devastated urban and rural forests alike in Florida, forests across the country are being weakened and even killed by traditional forest stresses supercharged by climate change. We need to help our forests adapt to harsher conditions by actively “pre-storing” them for climate resilience, and in some cases helping forests adapt by carefully transitioning to a new mix of tree species.
5. Our Forests Hold a Swing Vote
We have important choices to make. America’s forest carbon sink could grow even larger if we invest in actions like speeding up reforestation, new financial incentives for private forest owners, more active public land management and stronger use of forest products. But there is equal urgency to invest in science-based forestry to protect our forests from climate change. If we fail to keep our forests healthy, they could actually swing from a net sink to a net source of carbon emissions in many places.
American Forests and our partners in the Forest-Climate Working Group are focused on making U.S. forests a firm “yes vote” for climate action, with a goal to capture 30 percent of U.S. emissions in our forests by 2050. We know this goal is achievable based on strong science like the U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization — but only if we invest in the right actions for our forests.
It is time for America to embrace its forests and forest products like never before, from consumers and citizen advocates to all levels of government. We don’t have a moment to lose. Let’s just make sure that we act by embracing our already strong U.S. forest sector, and leverage the powerful capacity we already have in place to deliver forest-climate solutions across America.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.