Forestry is the answer! Really? Again?

The perceived economics of climate change mitigation continue to be a key barrier to aggressive climate policy. With that in mind, I read with great interest a recent report written for Oregon’s Department of Energy by the Center for Climate Strategies (CCS). The report, 10-Year Energy Action Plan Modeling: Greenhouse Gas Marginal Abatement Cost Curve Development and Macroeconomic Foundational Modeling for Oregon (GHG MACC Report), is available here.

I’ve had a soft spot for forestry in my climate-change-related professional career. I worked on the first carbon offset forestry project, pursued in Guatemala by the independent power producer AES Corp. with the international relief agency CARE, in 1989. While at the World Resources Institute, I published the first broad assessment of how forestry could be used in the United States to mitigate climate change (Minding the Carbon Store: Weighing U.S. Forestry Strategies to Slow Global Warming, in 1991, and the first such assessment for tropical forestry, Keeping It Green: Tropical Forestry Opportunities for Mitigating Climate Change, in 1995.

In the early 1990s, I helped develop and implement many of the first carbon-offset projects pursued in the United States, including in Oregon. Working with The Nature Conservancy and others, I lobbied for years for the inclusion of avoided deforestation projects in the global Kyoto Protocol. In 1977, Freeman Dyson wrote that pursuing the reforestation of an area half the size of Australia would help stem climate change by sequestering enormous quantities of carbon. Many other authors subsequently suggested that forestry could contribute in a huge way to climate change mitigation relatively cheaply and relatively easily.

So aggressive were these arguments that many environmentalists felt they had to attack forestry as a material mitigation strategy, fearing that the pursuit of forestry measures would be perceived as rendering unneeded significant measures on the energy side of the equation.

Anyone who really knows the dynamics of forestry and land-use change around the world, however, has always known that large-scale management of landscapes for carbon sequestration is much harder — and generally much more expensive — than it looks when put into the larger context of growing populations looking for more land to develop, food to grow and cattle to export. All sorts of other variables further complicate the equation, from legal requirements, to “use it or lose it” standards for tropical forest landowners, to tax laws that significantly impede the willingness of ability of landowners (including in the United States) to encumber their lands with long-lived trees. Suggesting that Shakespeare had climate change mitigation in mind when uttering his famous words: “To tree or not to tree, that is the question!” has always been more fanciful than reality. No matter how important forest conservation and reforestation efforts are for many economic, social, and biodiversity reasons, forestry can only be a piece in the large jigsaw puzzle that is (or would be) successful climate change mitigation.

Next page: Real trees, not Christmas trees