By Jad Daley, American Forests’ President and CEO
The clock is ticking on climate change. We need to scale every possible solution, including natural carbon capture in our trees and forests. That’s why today’s introduction of the Climate Stewardship Act in the United States Congress is so significant. The Climate Stewardship Act proposes ramping up natural climate solutions — from farms to forests to wetlands — to their full potential. Of critical importance, this includes putting unprecedented investment into planting Tree Equity in cities so that our push for natural climate solutions also advances environmental justice and health equity.
Forests provide the vast majority of natural carbon capture in land, so it is appropriate that the Climate Stewardship Act was crafted with special attention to trees and, notably, reforestation. The new Reforestation Hub from American Forests and The Nature Conservancy, powered by cutting-edge scientific analysis, shows potential to plant and grow 68 billion trees across 133 million acres in the Lower 48 states. This would increase natural carbon capture in America’s forests by nearly half, making it the country’s single largest opportunity to increase natural climate solutions.
The Climate Stewardship Act would take a huge step toward capturing this potential by providing enough federal funding to plant and grow billions of trees — making it one of the largest reforestation proposals ever offered in Congress. Each billion trees would naturally sequester and store 620 million tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime. That is equal to the carbon dioxide emissions from nearly 135 million cars driven for one year.
Reforestation at this scale would do much more than just capture carbon. The legislation prioritizes planting in large landscapes that provide public drinking water and critical wildlife habitat corridors, helping to address growing climate change-related threats to water security and biodiversity. Ambitious new efforts to reforest burned areas in California’s Sierra Nevada, the source of drinking water for more than half of Californians, offers one example of how investing in planting and growing trees can deliver vital, life-giving benefits, along with natural climate solutions.
But it is urgent that we also deliver climate justice and health equity as part of our efforts to slow climate change. The Climate Stewardship Act would answer this call by planting 100 million trees in cities by 2030, prioritized to deliver Tree Equity for the lower income and BIPOC neighborhoods across America that systemically lack trees. This level of urban forest investment would be unparalleled in American history, and is merited by current realities. Climate change has already dramatically increased heat-related illness and loss of life in the kinds of vulnerable communities that regularly lack the natural cooling and improved air quality provided by urban trees. The bill’s investment in Tree Equity over the next decade is projected to save more than 200 lives and avoid 50,000 incidences of heat and respiratory illness, while generating more than $2.5 billion in health care and energy savings.
Urban trees also do double duty in slowing climate change because the cooling and insulating effect of these trees reduces home energy use for air conditioning and heat by an average of 7.2 percent nationally. That means they provide avoided greenhouse gas emissions, along with natural carbon capture.
Echoing the spirit of the New Deal, the Climate Stewardship Act would turn this vital environmental progress into economic recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. Research shows that each million dollars invested in planting trees and other natural resource restoration could support as many as 39.7 jobs in rural areas, and 25.7 jobs in urban areas. In total, just the tree planting alone in the Climate Stewardship Act would create and support hundreds of thousands of green jobs over the next decade. To make sure this reaches the people who need these economic opportunities most, including urban areas, the bill creates a new Stewardship Corps targeted to engage youth and BIPOC communities.
Trees and forests alone cannot solve climate change, but they can really help. The Climate Stewardship Act would provide long-awaited federal investment needed to more fully capture this opportunity while simultaneously helping to tackle equally urgent issues of social and racial equity, water security, biodiversity protection and economic recovery. America should grab this promising opportunity to unite as “One Nation Under Trees” so we can build back better together.