Fighting Climate Change with Forests

The role of forests in international climate policy is growing

In his classic story, “The Giving Tree,” Shel Silverstein illustrates how one tree plays a central role in the life of a boy as he grows up and utilizes the tree throughout his experiences. As is the case in most classic children books, the central message is relevant to children and adults alike: The lives of humans and forests are interlinked, and preserving our forests is crucial to preserving our quality of life.

Forests are not only a crucial component in preserving clean air and water – they can also protect us from the impacts of climate change. Scientists estimate that forest loss accounts for about 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, making deforestation the second largest source of carbon pollution after the fossil fuels we burn for transportation and electricity. Yet each year more than 32 million acres of the world’s forests are destroyed – an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania. That pumps millions of tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere annually.

One way of tackling the problems of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions is through the use of carbon offsets. Forest-based carbon offsets can play an essential role in reducing heat-trapping carbon pollutants while simultaneously providing a host of other benefits to society. In addition to reducing emissions from avoided deforestation, offsets can help maintain the critical carbon sequestration that forests provide by absorbing and storing about 20 percent of the world’s carbon emissions every year. Awareness of the value of these benefits has motivated policy makers from the United Nations, to the Amazon, to California to include forest protection as a component of effective climate policy.

The role of forests in international climate policy is growing. Today, the UN climate treaty process has embraced forests as a critical part of its policy and is building an encouraging program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). That hasn’t always been the case. Forests played only a small role back in 1997 when the UN adopted the Kyoto Protocol. In the US, frustration with federal inaction has spurred some states to actively develop climate policies that include a more robust role for forests. California is a good example of where this policy is already working.

Often a global leader in environmental policy, Californians have expressed their concern about climate change. The state’s leaders have taken bold action, including passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (known as AB 32) – legislation designed to attack climate change by requiring California to reduce carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. To implement AB 32, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) has adopted a comprehensive, balanced program targeting 85 percent of the state’s carbon pollution. AB 32 will require 80 percent of the emission reductions to come from measures like reducing CO2 from cars, and many of these measures will have additional benefits like reducing localized air pollution. About 20 percent of the reductions will come from a cap and trade program establishing the second largest compliance carbon market in the world. Companies required to reduce their emissions under the “cap” will be allowed to use carbon offset credits to fulfill 8 percent of their compliance requirements. One source for these credits is protection and improved management of forests.

Offsets provide a variety of benefits to the state’s climate program. They result in emission reductions from sources not subject to the cap – for example, forests and dairies. They help minimize the costs of the program to business and consumers. They reduce emissions quickly. And they provide a host of other benefits to local people and the environment such as protecting our water quality, food supply, and fish and wildlife. The ARB has crafted a rigorous set of requirements that ensure that forest offsets will reliably produce benefits to the atmosphere while creating value to those landowners who change their practices to steward private forestland.

California’s old growth redwood forests are among the most carbon-rich forests on the planet, and our experience shows that forest offsets can meet the requirements of AB 32. For the past six years The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy have created a model for effective forest carbon credits at the Garcia River Forest in California’s North Coast. In 2008 the Garcia River Forest became one of the first forests recognized by the Climate Action Reserve as a verified source of carbon credits. On average, the Garcia River Forest is storing more than 150,000 tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of taking more than 28,000 cars off the road every year.

As we are learning in California, a well-designed and rigorous forest-based carbon offset program is a critical tool in a climate program that can reduce emissions effectively. With strong standards based in good science and experience on the ground, we are confident that forests can reduce emissions while providing public benefits like cleaner air and water and a healthier economy.

Like the tree in Silverstein’s book, our forests provide us with amazing resources. We simply cannot reduce carbon pollution enough without also stopping forest loss. The public money that the likes of Norway and the World Bank are spending on this issue will not be enough. Private capital and market mechanisms must be involved if we want to preserve a habitable planet for future generations – and forest-based carbon offsets are a way to do that.

For an opposing viewpoint, read what Daphne Wysham has to say …

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