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Forestry is the answer! Really? Again?

<p>Can trees really help meet a state&#39;s climate-change goals, even one as green as Oregon? Researchers may be barking up the wrong tree.</p>

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.

In the GHG MACC Report, intended to help understand the economics of emissions reductions in Oregon, the Center for Climate Strategies was charged with two tasks:

  • developing a set of greenhouse gas marginal abatement cost curves (MACC) using Oregon specific data and analysis; and
  • using those MACC curves to conduct preliminary baseline macroeconomic modeling to inform Oregon’s 10-year energy action plan.

The 400+ page report is chockfull of numbers for more than 200 potential GHG emissions-reduction measures, and seeks to build a number of scenarios involving varying levels of state and federal efforts towards a low-carbon economy. To rather grossly summarize the report’s conclusions, it suggests that Oregon can stay on track to meet suggested goals of a 10 percent reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 by 2020, and a 75 percent reduction by 2050, with seemingly modest levels of effort at state and federal levels.

This is an attractive conclusion, and one that many observers (including me) will want to applaud.

But then I looked more closely at the numbers reflecting land-use measures. These include reforestation of cropland, reforestation of rangeland, and rotation-management, although the first two account for the vast majority of the estimated emissions reduction potential. In the report’s Scenario 3, which the report concludes would put Oregon on track to exceed its emissions reduction targets, land-use change options play a key role: In 2022, they account for 42 percent of the 52 million tons of annual emissions reductions potential; in 2035, they account for 46 percent of the 100 million tons of annual emissions reductions potential.

In other words, these two land-use change options account for almost half of the total reductions available from more than 200 emissions reduction measures reviewed (including seemingly far-fetched options like a return of nuclear power to the state).

There is little question that there is quite a bit of land in Oregon that would be better off under tree cover, both environmentally and economically (using typical economic assumptions but not reflecting economic and behavioral realities). We knew this to be true back in 1992 when utilities started looking for reforestation opportunities as part of early climate change mitigation efforts, partially in response to estimates that millions of acres in Oregon would benefit from reforestation. I and others searched the state for landowners willing to convert their lands to trees (real trees, not Christmas trees). Oregon’s Secretary of State Phil Keisling took this idea even further, launching Oregon’s Forest Resources Trust to encourage reforestation.

To say that these efforts fell short of the mark would be an understatement. Very few landowners in Oregon were willing to entertain the notion of tying up their crop or pasture or rangeland for decades with long-rotation trees like Douglas fir or Ponderosa pine. For family reasons, tax reasons, inheritance reasons, and short-term economic reasons, it was simply a non-starter.

This doesn’t mean that large-scale reforestation of Oregon wouldn’t make environmental and economic sense from a societal standpoint. But that’s like saying that all school children should be able to do well in school, or that all retirees should be able to have a comfortable retirement. Societal “potential” is one thing; practical realities are another.

So when I hear that the CCS report identifies trees as a big part of the answer for Oregon’s climate change mitigation efforts, making up almost 50 percent of the mitigation potential by 2035, I have to conclude that we were probably asking the wrong question — one having to do with theoretical rather than practical potentials.

Because I still do have a soft spot for trees, I think it’s unfair to set trees up for another big fall.

Image of tree by Lightspring via Shutterstock

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