New England Forests Have Untapped Potential In Fight Against Climate Change

A new paper published in the Journal of Forestry reveals that New England’s forests can mitigate climate change much more than previously thought. Authors representing three non-profit organizations collaborated to bring together expertise in forest management, climate change science, and policy: The New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), Woods Hole Research Center, and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. According to the authors, growing sustainable forests and then using forest products in tall wood buildings could capture and store globally significant amounts of carbon while eliminating the carbon pollution from the manufacture of concrete and steel.

“The role of global forests in mitigating climate change was strongly recognized in the Paris Agreement of 2016, but we didn’t go far enough. We now know that additional new approaches could dramatically increase the climate benefits of forest conservation, management and the use of forest products,” explains the report’s lead author Alec Giffen Senior Advisor for the New England Forestry Foundation.

Bob Perschel, co-author and NEFF’s Executive Director, connects the findings to impacts on land ownership and management: “If a portion of New England’s 170,000 private forest landowners can be incentivized to manage their forests for climate mitigation, we can activate powerful approaches to reaching state, regional and national climate mitigation goals.”

In “Seeing Forests for More than Carbon in Trees: Incentivizing Actions Beyond Carbon Storage to Mitigate Climate Change,” the authors call for expanding the use of forest products in residential and commercial building construction to avoid emissions of carbon and to sequester more of it, as well as managing forests for additional climate benefits beyond storing carbon.

“Sequestering carbon has long been recognized as an important way living forests can contribute to reduced greenhouse gas levels,” explains Giffen. “In addition, we can sequester carbon outside of forests by using wood in long-lasting tall structures, and we can manage forests for greater cooling effects and for reduced uses of fossil fuels in other sectors. These opportunities need to be investigated and deployed.”

Using new engineered wood products to replace steel and concrete in mid- to high-rise construction, say the authors, will help store carbon for the life of the building. Simultaneously, forests will store more carbon with new tree growth.

"It has been known for some time that deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. But forests can also mitigate the problem. This paper demonstrates that constructing large buildings with wood is an immediately viable strategy that stores carbon for a long time," said Woods Hole Research Center President Phil Duffy.

“We can keep much CO2 out of the atmosphere, and avoid a lot of fossil fuel use, by building with wood instead of steel, concrete, and bricks,” says Chadwick Oliver, Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. “And new timber product innovations are long-lasting, more resistant to fires and earthquakes than concrete, steel, and brick buildings, and require relatively little fossil fuel and CO2 emissions in their construction.”

Co-author of the new article Will Price, President of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, explains it this way, “The key is looking long-term and holistically at the flows of carbon in the system, where it stays, where it goes, and what would happen otherwise.”

The article also describes ways forests can be managed for climate mitigation effects beyond storing carbon, for example:

  • Better understanding of how forests cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. The phenomena known as the “albedo effect” includes the reflection from snow in northern latitudes in winter.
  • Managing forests to optimize the climate effects of organic compounds they release into the atmosphere. These compounds, known as BVOCs (biogenic volatile organic compounds), can affect temperatures by directly reflecting sunlight and by causing more cloud formation.
  • Planting or maintaining trees to increase agricultural productivity, reducing the need for further agricultural clearing of forests.

Additionally, a recent article by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) points to the role trees have on the water cycle, and the resulting climate benefits. Understanding and rewarding these and other effects could in turn create more financial incentives to conserve forests, the authors say.

“If we fail to account for all of the benefits that forests provide, we won’t provide the incentives and support to landowners to encourage management that would reduce climate change,” says Giffen. “Recognizing and rewarding these climate benefits could bolster economic incentives to keep landscapes forested.”

The article recommends global policymakers recognize these effects, find methods for compensating landowners for climate-friendly management practices, develop incentives for accelerating wood use in buildings, and support further research on the specifics of the expanded climate services forests can provide.

“Forests are the most widespread terrestrial ecosystem,” says co-author Frank Lowenstein, Deputy Director at NEFF. “It is vital that we manage them to the planet’s fullest advantage in the face of the climate crisis.”

The New England Forestry Foundation is dedicated to providing for the conservation and ecologically sound management of privately owned forestlands in New England, throughout the Americas and beyond.

See also:
New Thinking To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
How Homeowners Can Help Restore Carbon