Forests: the natural solution to climate crisis

Five pathways to greater carbon sequestration

FROM CATASTROPHIC STORMS and record-breaking heat to the rapid decline of bird and insect populations, a day doesn’t pass without news about the dire ecological and economic effects of climate change. Sometimes, the relentless cascade of troubling data and predictions can seem like background noise – too difficult to solve, easier to tune out.

Here in New England, though, research published last year is impossible to ignore. Separate studies have shown that the Northeast is warming more rapidly than other regions of the US and faster than the global average, with the rate of climate-induced warming on course to accelerate.

The good news is that New England has a natural solution to climate change right under its nose: the 32 million acres of forest blanketing three-quarters of the region’s land base.

New England forests are recognized as a globally important carbon sink and already sequester the equivalent of 14 percent of carbon emissions in the six states. Our report, “New England’s Climate Imperative: Our Forests as a Natural Climate Solution,” released this month by Highstead, shows how a set of complementary strategies could enable New England’s forests to do much more – sequestering at least 20 percent of emissions while providing a raft of other benefits, from clean water and air to recreation, jobs, and economic opportunity.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont have statutory commitments to reduce carbon emissions, with targets ranging from Vermont’s vow to reduce carbon pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and Massachusetts’ net zero by 2050 goal to 80 percent reduction targets in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine. While not set in statute, New Hampshire’s aspirational goal would get the Granite State to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The new report seeks to inform legislators and policymakers throughout New England as they pursue these state-level climate goals. Forests are making important carbon reduction contributions already, but through five pathways, the authors note, New England could boost the amount of carbon absorbed by its forests by 6.4 percent, with the potential of absorbing nearly 100 percent of the region’s projected emissions by 2050 if all state emissions reduction scenarios are met.

The pathways include:

  • Avoided deforestation – changing development practices to reduce annual rates of forest destruction by 75 percent;

  • Wildland reserves – designating at least 10 percent of existing forests as forever wild, allowing more trees to grow old and accumulate and store more carbon;

  • Improved forest management – applying better management practices to 50 percent of timberlands;

  • Mass timber construction – replacing concrete and steel with wood in half of all new institutional buildings and multi-family homes; and

  • Urban and suburban forests – increasing tree canopy and forest cover by at least 5 percent in cities and suburbs.

Each measure is valuable on its own, but the best outcomes will accrue through an all-of-the-above approach. Combined, the five pathways can yield cumulative carbon reduction savings of 365 million tons over 30 years – equal to displacing the 30-year energy consumption of nearly 1.3 million New England households.

Conversely, the report finds that a business-as-usual approach will only exacerbate the climate crisis, while constraining the environmental, recreational, and economic benefits forests provide. Despite their value, New England’s forests and the carbon they store and sequester are at risk – mainly from conversion to development and poorly planned harvests. Current estimates of annual forest loss range from 11,000 to almost 45,000 acres. Using a medium estimate of 28,000 acres, New England could forfeit about 850,000 acres of forest by 2050, with a corresponding loss of aboveground carbon storage and potential future carbon sequestration.

Earth is perilously close to eclipsing the 1.5 degree C increase in average annual temperatures that scientists agree will cause irreparable harm to society and nature. Increasingly, governments and businesses are counting on future carbon removal to stem this tide. Forests are poised to be heroes of this scenario. While technological approaches exist, none rival forests in terms of the magnitude of carbon that can be removed from the atmosphere.

 “New England’s Climate Imperative” lays out a series of recommendations to realize this potential. Among the recommendations are adoption of no net loss of forests and smart growth zoning policies; the siting of wind and solar energy projects outside of forestlands; bond funding for acquisition of wildland reserves, as well as to finance municipal tree planting and maintenance programs; compensation to incentivize landowners to implement “climate smart” forestry practices; and adoption of the IBC 2021 building code to allow tall wood buildings.

A key solution to the climate crisis is literally just outside our doorsteps. Policymakers should embrace this opportunity and prioritize New England’s forests as indispensable tools in the fight against climate change.

Kavita Kapur Macleod, the principal of KKM Environmental Consulting, conducts analyses around environmental policy issues that integrate economic, scientific, and policy considerations for public, private, and NGO institutions both domestically and internationally. Jonathan Thompson is the research director and senior ecologist at the Harvard Forest, a department of Harvard University.