Climate Matters: Safeguarding our green lung
6th in a series
I found myself in a climate change conversation with an engineer recently. He’s new to the topic and very enthusiastic, feeling as though he’s found his mission in life. From his perspective, the physics is simple: We need to stop putting CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere, and we need to remove as much of it as possible. Removal must be permanent, and incentives should only be provided based on measured lower emissions or greater removal … period. Technology exists for this; what we lack is the collective focus to get it done.
As a now-retired forester who spent much of the last decade engaged on both professional and policy levels to do just that, my initial reaction was to think, if only it were that simple! Luckily, I suppressed that instinct and instead listened, trying to fill in where he had questions about how these systems worked: biological systems, economic systems, political systems, social systems. Often, I’d catch myself prefacing my response with “It’s complicated….” Just as often, he’d resort to his engineering logic and say, “But it’s not!” To the chagrin of other family members, we continued for a few hours, a bit like an extended ping-pong game.
With this conversation still rattling in my head, I dug into the recently released Vermont Climate Action Plan. It’s long (250+ pages, not including appendices), detailed (230+ recommendations), and complex (integrating efficacy, economics and equity). Despite this, you should read it. Its analyses are unlikely to leave you feeling optimistic. Criticisms could be leveled at its broad scope or lack of specifics, or that it lacks information on how much recommended actions will cost or how they’ll be funded. In fairness, this is a draft plan. It offers important baseline analysis, introduces several considerations absent from earlier efforts, and perhaps most important, it represents the context for the difficult discussions to come, across all sectors of government, commerce and society.
Indeed, these are complex systems. Let’s consider forests. Biologically (and chemically and physically), trees are the most efficient organisms on the planet for capturing CO2 from the air. Trees literally breathe in CO2, and through photosynthesis, release oxygen and store carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. Every acre of mature forest removes one-half to two tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually, varying by forest age, species, site and other factors. Because Vermont is nearly 80% forested, this giant green lung cleans nearly half of the CO2 emissions we generate statewide. Furthermore, since our woods are well stocked with big trees, the sum of all the carbon in our woods represents over 200 years of stored CO2 at our current rate of emissions. Not bad, considering forests also support flood resilience, water filtering, wildlife habitat, wood and non-wood products, spiritual grounding and tourist dollars. Forests are climate champions and offer huge intrinsic value, but given our current model, the economics of forest ownership aren’t all that attractive. I conducted a small harvest on our woodlot last winter. Nearly half the trees I cut I sold to the local sawmill, netting under $5 per tree.
The benefits of our forests have long been recognized. In Vermont, those benefits continue to flow in part because we taxpayers subsidize the property taxes of forest landowners. In return, we’re given assurances those lands continue to be managed sustainably. But I would argue the climate crisis has upped the ante. What was the value of the trees I harvested in terms of carbon stored, or clean air, or biological diversity, or water yield?
For the first time in any major state climate or energy plan, the Climate Council and the draft Climate Action Plan acknowledge the range of ecosystem benefits provided by our forests. The role of forests as a carbon store is supported by a “carbon budget” that considers major sources and sinks of CO2 across all natural lands in the state. There is little debate around the need to keep forestland forested — and all that stored carbon out of the air.
That’s the simple part. How do we choose to incentivize responsible stewardship, who pays, and how much? Well, stay tuned for that discussion. Not surprisingly, it’s a debate happening in many states and nearly every country with significant forest. As in Vermont, temperate forests play a major role in the global carbon budget. COP26, last fall’s United Nations Climate conference, hammered out the rules for the last remaining article of the Paris Agreement, including how credits for stored carbon should be accounted for and traded. As a society, we have started down this path of paying those with ownership rights and responsibilities to safeguard and sequester carbon. It’s a fascinating nexus of biology, commerce and policy that is very complicated. But the goal is simple: remove CO2, make sure it stays out of the atmosphere, measure how much is removed, verify and validate all claims, and compensate those land stewards with sufficient payment to make it all work. One point is worthy of note: the money — the big lever moving these complex systems toward a new paradigm — is almost entirely private capital. As my colleague and systems mentor Donella Meadows once said, before you can change a system you must learn to dance with it.
Robert Turner of Starksboro was a member of the Governor’s Climate Action Commission in 2018 and sat on a 2020 legislative study committee tasked with examining the role of forest carbon offsets as a way to conserve forests. He spent 10 years as a verifier of forest carbon offsets.
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