The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sent a clear message: to keep catastrophic climate change impacts at bay, we need to keep our warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the land sector must play a central role in achieving that. We need to stop emissions from deforestation and forest degradation while simultaneously bolstering the carbon sequestration capacity of healthy, growing forests.
Following the recent U.S. presidential election, the Forest-Climate Working Group (FCWG) released an ambitious federal policy platform, endorsed by 43 CEOs and organizations representing all dimensions of U.S. forests, intended to help Congress leverage forests for climate change action. The platform includes five detailed proposals that guide policymakers on how to help private forest owners and public land managers overcome existing financial and technical obstacles, enabling them to grow powerful climate solutions in America’s forests and forest product sectors while delivering myriad environmental and economic benefits.
Together, the proposals advance the four FCWG goals for climate change mitigation:
- Maintain and expand forest cover.
- Improve forest practices for carbon, adaptation and resilience.
- Advance markets for forest carbon, forest products and skilled labor.
- Enhance climate data and applied science.
Our newly elected leadership is on board with climate action. A crucial component of any carbon-neutral or net-zero plan is offsetting any continued emissions with additional sequestration from natural and working lands, including forests.
The threat climate change presents to our well-being is becoming increasingly undeniable, and the need and desire to take impactful action is within reach.
In her vice-presidential debate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris recognized climate change as an "existential threat" and stated that, under a Biden administration, the U.S. would be "carbon-neutral by 2035." President-elect Joe Biden’s official campaign climate plan highlights the next step: achieving "net-zero emissions no later than 2050."
To ensure these targets are within reach, FCWG proposals address the following challenges:
- Non-industrial family landowners own 36 percent of U.S. forests (with an average parcel size of 67.2 acres). Due to their small size, the vast majority are unable to benefit from existing carbon markets and face increasing financial pressure to convert forestland into cropland or development.
- U.S. forests are understocked. Research and funding for increased reforestation are needed to optimize forest sequestration without exacerbating potential for catastrophic fire.
- The construction sector makes up 8.6 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. While technology such as cross-laminated timber could dramatically reduce sector emissions if sustainably deployed at scale, it faces upfront informational and perceived cost barriers for architects, builders and developers.
Ideas into action
With the following specific proposals, the FCWG aims to address the aforementioned challenges and, in so doing, increase the climate change mitigation potential from forests and forest products:
- Create a new forest conservation easement program. Conservation easements are an important voluntary option for forest landowners to keep their forests as forests. This proposal would meet growing demand for easements by creating a new funding source.
- Create a landowner tax credit for private forest carbon actions. This policy would create opportunities for private landowners to gain financial incentive for activities that increase carbon sequestration via a transferrable tax credit.
- Remove the cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund. The outdated cap has left a reforestation backlog of millions of acres, particularly in areas affected by large-scale disturbance from pests or fire. Removing the outdated cap will provide the U.S. Forest Service with increased annual funding to improve national forest health and assure these lands can quickly restart carbon sequestration.
- Create a low carbon footprint building tax credit. Wood products store carbon and require less energy to manufacture than other materials, reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment. Providing a tax incentive to build with low carbon footprint materials will create incentives to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment while creating market demand that helps landowners keep forests as forests.
- Expand Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program funding. More frequent and consistent forest measurement data coupled with better analysis capabilities will deepen our understanding of forest carbon. Expanding the U.S. Forest Service’s FIA Program, already a globally recognized source of forest carbon data, will provide more comprehensive and granular data.
These proposals are necessary steps toward meaningfully combatting climate change. Richard Kobe, Michigan State University Forestry Department chair, says of the platform:
"The FCWG policy platform is right on target by supporting investments in our forests, landowners and research capacity. These elements are critical to ensure our forests are effective carbon sinks and are resilient to climate change, which in turn supports economic vitality of rural communities, clean water, wildlife and the many other benefits that forests provide."
Uptake and implementation
The FCWG policy platform lays out a roadmap of tangible steps to ensure that our forests are part of the climate solution. As the 117th U.S. Congress prepares to undertake a range of legislation, climate inevitably will play a dominant role.
The threat climate change presents to our well-being is becoming increasingly undeniable, and the need and desire to take impactful action is within reach. A host of recent bipartisan bills (such as the Growing Climate Solutions Act and Rural Forests Market Act proposals) highlight that being proactive about the environmental and economic potential of our natural and working lands, including forestry and agriculture, is of great interest on both sides of the aisle.
The MSU Forest Carbon and Climate Program (FCCP) aims to increase understanding and implementation of climate-smart forest management, which inextricably links climate change mitigation and adaptation. The program focuses on activities that advance best practice implementation, promote robust and inter-disciplinary understanding of forest benefits and co-benefits, and develop and nurture balanced perspectives that include working forests and forest products as a part of the climate change solution. These objectives are achieved through working with strategic partners to better communicate and bring attention to key topics, create educational content and programming, and bridge dialogue gaps on carbon and climate topics related to forests and forested lands.