Can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New England by 30 percent?
That’s a lot of carbon to suck out of the air. Here is what we do know: the Maine forest can vacuum up a lot of it.
If summer droughts and unsafe lake ice aren’t convincing evidence we are in trouble, a Feb. 28 report issued by 270 scientists from 67 countries by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change certainly is. The panel’s scientists mapped the human and economic toll from climate-related emergencies, including a decreasing food supply, lack of water, more heatwaves and more infectious diseases.
The result is an urgent call to action. In a follow-up report due out in April, the group will propose strategies on how to reduce greenhouse gasses to slow the warming. Climate-focused forestry is among them.
With more than 17 million acres of forest, Maine is in a unique position to make a difference. Private timberland makes up the vast majority of that, including large acreages of commercial forest, and produces the raw materials for everyday items from toilet paper to two-by-fours to auto parts and the specialty paper that texturizes the vinyl on our car dashboards. But Maine forests are more than an endless wood supply. Ecological reserves, public lands and forever-wild areas are part of the mix. The ecological value is high: Western and northern Maine provides the last big block of undeveloped forest of its kind in the world and provides some of the best remaining habitat. Our efforts can and should strengthen ecological values.
The Maine forest is also home to 25 billion trees that suck up carbon through their leaves and lock it up in their trunks at varying rates, depending on the type and age of the trees. They can lock up more through using climate-focused forest practices on millions of acres of forest land. These practices are being used right now to restore important fish, bird and wildlife habitat on some commercial and family-owned forest land in Maine.
Wood, once harvested, can also lock up carbon. One example worth paying attention to is Mass Timber, a wood laminate that is as strong as steel and concrete but has a much lower carbon footprint and can replace both in multi-story buildings. It is the focus of the University of Maine Mass Timber Commercialization Center, which is exploring climate, housing, and economic benefits. Across New England and New York, the Mass Timber Regional Dialogue brought land trust managers, climate scientists, economic planners, architects, state government representatives and more together to explore how to incentivize use of Mass Timber on behalf of the climate.
By applying climate-focused forestry to feed a steady supply of wood into retooled Maine mills that produce wood products, we can lock up a lot of atmospheric carbon along every step of a tree’s life cycle and through the supply chain, from seedling to fast-growing sapling through to processing the log to use in the construction of a multi-story apartment building of strength and beauty.
The missing link has been adequate levels of investment to move both forestry and manufacturing forward on behalf of the climate.
An opportunity to provide that landed in February when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a competitive $1 billion grant for pilot projects that create markets for what the USDA calls “climate-smart” commodities. The deadline is in April. Winners will be announced in June.
We calculate it will take until 2050 to reach zero carbon emissions in New England, with the forests of New England contributing 30 percent. Let’s use available funding, innovation, existing knowledge and infrastructure and a skilled workforce to create a climate chain reaction from the forests of Maine to wood buildings in cities ranging from Bangor to Boston and beyond.
Alec Giffen of Chelsea is a senior forest science and policy fellow at the New England Forestry Foundation. He was previously director of the Maine Forest Service.