We'll Always Have Paris: Climate Change Success Runs Through Forests

The landmark climate agreement signed last weekend in Paris is notable for many reasons, including recognition that renewable energy alone won't solve the climate crisis. Carbon emissions will continue despite best efforts, as the agreement notes, and it says there should be new investment in "negative emissions technologies" to remove carbon from our air.

While the phrase might call to mind giant vacuum cleaners or carbon-zapping lasers, the planet already has the perfect carbon scrubbing device in hand--our forests.

Sure, tropical forests have received some attention in past climate agreements, as the world realizes these carbon-rich forests are at extreme risk to being cleared for agriculture. But the new climate agreement reached in Paris provides broader recognition that all the world's forests can play a huge role in capturing and storing carbon. In fact, it says forests must play a role if we are to meet the goal of holding warming to 2 degrees Centigrade or less.

This has significant implications in the U.S., where our forests and forest products capture and store more than 800 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. That is equivalent to almost 15 percent of our annual carbon emissions. But new science from the U.S. Forest Service has warned that this powerful carbon sink is at risk from being developed for housing and other purposes, and faces threats like fire and pest infestations that will get worse with climate change. In fact, some U.S. forests could turn from being a carbon-trapping "sink" into a source of emissions within a few decades if we don't take action.

We have a head start on solutions, thanks to important forest sector actions already underway through President Obama's Climate Action Plan, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new carbon strategy announced last April. But more can be done. There are four key steps the U.S. government can take to fully leverage American forests as a major part of the post-Paris climate solution:

1. Keep Forests as Forests: Every time privately-owned forests are cleared for housing, commercial development, or agriculture, we lose a little of our carbon capture potential. The Forest Legacy Program is a federal grant program that has conserved more than 3 million acres of private forest, but is significantly underfunded, receiving only $50 million to $60 million per year. An "all in" forest carbon strategy would invest in this program at the same level as we promote renewable energy--on the order of hundreds of millions each year.

2. Plant More Forests.: If conserving forests is good defense for carbon, replanting forests is like going on offense. There are large swaths of the U.S., like the Lower Mississippi Delta, where marginal agricultural lands are being replanted with carbon-hungry native forests. In the Delta's rich soils, each acre of forest will capture and store 320-350 tons of carbon dioxide. That means one large-scale replanting project, like my organization advanced in the Tensas River Basin of Louisiana, can capture and store carbon equivalent to taking a coal fired power plant offline for 7 months. Federal programs like the USDA Agricultural Conservation Easement Program have been very successful in helping private landowners plant forests, but we need to invest more to reach the scale of reforestation that is needed.

3. Invest in Science: Much of the carbon loss projected by the U.S. Forest Service is a result of declining forest health. Forests under stress from fire, pests, disease, and dramatic temperature shifts are more likely to lose carbon, and less likely to capture carbon through vigorous growth. The Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, has created a network of "Climate Hubs" to give forest landowners the information they need to effectively manage their lands to remain healthy and productive through the changes ahead. We should invest heavily in the Climate Hubs to provide not only research funding but also technical assistance capacity to get that information to landowners.

4. Build With Wood.. While some people might imagine that maximizing forest carbon is about leaving our forests alone, most forest systems will capture the most carbon through a careful mix of harvested forest products--which store carbon--and carbon uptake in the healthy, well-managed forest that remains after logging. The federal government can help create incentives for building with wood, which displaces more carbon intensive building materials while creating forest products markets for landowners to keep forests productively managed.

While the federal government should provide this kind of clear leadership for forests, there is also a critical role for states. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan has triggered widespread climate action at the state level, including new state legislation proposing cap and trade systems, carbon taxes, and other measures.

States need to use this political moment to identify how they can also leverage forests as a carbon solution, whether through investment of cap and trade revenues in forests--as California has done--or other approaches. The Forest-Climate Working Group , an important public-private partnership involving leading organizations across the forest sector, will be releasing a new Carbon Solutions Toolkit this week to help states plan successful policy measures.

The Paris agreement was historic, but now the real work begins. If our forests are to play the role envisioned in the Paris agreement, federal and state policymakers will need to make commitments that match the moment.