Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Guest column: Forests can fight climate change

Apr. 30, 2023

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urges all nations and states to move faster on climate change – the life of the planet depends on it.

There are two ways for a progressive state like Massachusetts to respond.  One is the take goals set for 2050 and move them to 2040.  Accelerate the move to solar panels, electric cars and wind.  Since Massachusetts just reset these goals in 2021, such a move may be politically fraught if not practically possible in some cases.

The second approach is to think outside of the current climate policy box and identify new, cost-effective approaches that have not yet been considered.  Here is one suggestion, pulled from major scientific modeling studies, including one just released just a few weeks ago.

There are 31.6 billion trees growing right now in New England. How we manage these trees and how we use climate-friendly wood products from our region’s forests can have an astounding impact on our climate goals. If we manage them differently to protect biodiversity and store carbon, we can build with engineered wood instead of concrete and steel, while also protecting wild, unmanaged forests as part of a landscape approach.

Three recent studies indicate the impact could be as large as 30% of our entire current climate reduction goals. This path could accelerate climate mitigation in a way that is a win-win for our forests, the 215,000 private forest landowners that own these forests, the rural and urban economies that will manufacture the wood building components, and residents of the region in desperate need of affordable housing.

The first study was part of the New England Forestry Foundation’s 10-year project to research just this kind of mitigation possibility.  We codified the forestry practices that when applied will improve wildlife habitat, build up carbon stocks in the forest and assure a continued supply of wood products to replace more carbon-intensive materials like plastic, concrete and steel.  Our modeling results show we can offset 646 million metric tons of carbon.

A following study released in January by Highstead Foundation and Harvard offered similar support for climate-smart forestry.

The clincher was the release of this month’s Forest Carbon for Commercial Landowners report, commissioned by the owners and managers of millions of acres of forest ‒ almost half of New England.  They worked with the University of Maine to model a number of different management approaches and determined there were a set of forestry practices that could deliver the same scale of buildup of carbon in the forest while they maintained the harvest flows and production of climate-smart wood products. The report also indicated this could be accomplished with an incentive payment that might be as reasonable as $16 per ton of carbon.

The bottom line is that forests offer a tremendous climate mitigation possibility, and both large commercial land and small family owners alike are ready to participate.  Appropriate and reasonable incentive payments will be required, just like we provide them for homeowners to install solar panels.  But the cost is astonishingly low, particularly when we consider the other benefits that we all will enjoy with older, better-managed forests, improved wildlife habitat and a flow of regionally and locally produced wood products we can choose over plastic, concrete and steel.

With the support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Ed Markey, and congressional representatives from across New England, the New England Forestry Foundation received a $30 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a five-year pilot to move this climate approach forward.  The latest news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates we don’t have five years to wait to fully implement an approach we know will work.

What is required now is some out-of-the-box climate policy thinking on how our region’s forests and construction needs can be married to deliver the accelerated climate mitigation we so desperately need.

Robert Perschel is executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.