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Forests on the Frontline

May. 17, 2016
New England Forestry Foundation

Some 196 nations converged in Paris, unanimously agreeing on an approach to transform the world’s energy systems and economy. Oil-rich countries agreed to a document outlining reduced use of fossil fuels. Countries in the early stages of economic development agreed to follow a new path out of poverty, relying less heavily on cheap coal and oil.

After 24 years of negotiations, and increasingly stark warnings from scientists, the world has agreed to an expectation of action by all nations.

At first glance, it seems like the agreements might have less to do with forests than with renewable energy, home design, urban planning, or automobile manufacturing. But in fact, forests figure prominently in the Paris Agreements. The reason stems from the basic biology of trees. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and use energy from the sun to transform that carbon dioxide into trunks, branches, bark, and roots. Until the tree rots or is consumed by fire, the carbon in the wood is not released back to the atmosphere — lowering the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the amount of warming.

The Paris Agreements call for action to reduce deforestation, suggest a need for more attention to forests’ long-term management, and set the stage for ongoing innovations in using wood in place of steel and concrete in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Each of these outcomes from the Paris Agreements has implications for New England forests.

Every year, U.S. forests absorb 13 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, removing approximately 700 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. Without trees, our net emissions would be 13 percent higher, making global climate change even worse.

Within this national picture, New England forests play a significant role. Even though our region is small and trees here grow relatively slowly due to cold winters, New England is the most densely forested region in the nation, with more than 33 million acres of forest land. Each year, thousands of acres of forest land are permanently lost to development. Almost 3 percent of New England forests vanished beneath homes, shopping malls, and roads between 1990 and 2005; a forthcoming Harvard Forest study will provide an update on these numbers. Turning forests into suburbs or other forms of development eliminates their ability to store carbon, as well as to deliver benefits such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and quality jobs and products for the local community.

Land conservation is one tool to prevent deforestation. Over the last 120 years, land trusts and government have conserved 9 million acres of New England forests. But an additional 24 million acres are still at risk. New tools to speed conservation are needed.

In addition to recognizing the threats of deforestation, the Paris Agreements recognize that forests are dynamic, and not isolated from climate. The U.S. Forest Service reports that “wildfires, insect infestations, pulses of erosion and flooding, and drought-induced tree mortality are all expected to increase during the 21st century.” These changes, partly resulting from changes in climate, will increase mortality of mature trees and reduce regeneration of some species. To maintain forests’ ability to store carbon, new management techniques are needed to be able to anticipate and plan for climate change impacts.

Finally, the Paris Agreements invite innovative solutions to reduce climate change. In the last five years, architects and engineers around the world have piloted techniques that use engineered wood in place of concrete and steel construction. Using wood saves unnecessary carbon emissions that are required to manufacture steel and concrete, both of which must be heated to more than 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. By featuring solid wood walls, at times a foot or more thick, these new methods of construction also capture the carbon stored by trees. The carbon will remain trapped in the wood for decades.

NEFF is already at work to make sure New England forests benefit from the opportunities created by the Paris climate agreements. We are actively engaged in partnership efforts to create new conservation tools that will protect the most land possible for the least amount of charitable investment. As described in “Engaging Landowners in the MassConn Woods” on page 8 of this newsletter, NEFF is helping landowners access information on managing and conserving their forests. NEFF is also working with Manomet, a nonprofit dedicated to applying science to sustain our world, to test new forest management strategies for a changing climate at our Allen-Whitney Community Forest in Maine. Finally, NEFF’s Build It With Wood partnership (www.builditwithwood.org) aims to foster increased construction of wood buildings here in New England. As part of this effort, NEFF seeks to communicate the benefits of wood construction to the public and sustainability leaders.

The 196 world leaders who convened in Paris recognized the critical role of forests in maintaining a livable climate. With the Paris Agreements in place, now is the time for action to ensure the benefits of our global and local forests are here to stay.