Boston Globe

New England’s forests are an underused tool in the climate fight, study says

Nov. 08, 2022

New England’s vast forests, sprawling across three-quarters of six states, are silent but massive stalwarts against climate pollution in the region, devouring tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollution each year and preventing it from accumulating in the atmosphere.

But a new report says policymakers should do more to protect them, and that they could be taking steps that would even increase their carbon-storing potential.

The report, produced by Harvard University’s Harvard Forest, the regional conservation advocacy group Highstead Foundation, and consulting firm KKM Environmental Consulting, estimates that trees across New England are already absorbing roughly 27 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. That’s equal to 14 percent of the planet-warming pollution New Englanders emitted by using fossil fuels in 2020.

The authors said that adopting their recommendations to care for forests could boost that figure to 21 percent — or the equivalent of the emissions of nearly 1.3 million New England households. Their methods focus on protecting forests and also allowing trees to grow old, because studies show that the older a tree is, the greater its potential to store carbon.

The authors’ first and perhaps most straightforward recommendation: slow deforestation.

They say New England is currently losing 28,000 acres of forestland each year to make space for housing, energy infrastructure, and other projects. If current deforestation trends continue, the authors estimate that the region could lose almost 3 percent of the existing forest area by 2050.

Simply by incorporating conservation considerations into development decisions and creating incentives for developers to protect woodlands, the authors say the region could slow deforestation dramatically. Reducing annual rates of deforestation by 50 percent could protect trees’ ability to sequester 49.2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Cutting the rate by 75 percent would yield a carbon benefit of 73.8 million tons of emissions.

The authors also said policymakers should implement stronger forest protections, specifically by designating more woodland as “forever wild” through conservation easements. That would mean permanently forbidding development and limiting human activity.

Though a quarter of the region’s forests are under some kind of conservation protection, just four percent of land in New England is currently under such a protection. The authors recommend upping that percentage to 10, an increase they say is within reach.

The report also recommends incentives for the logging industry to use more sustainable practices, including implementing “rest periods” for forested land to recover from past overharvesting and more selectively chopping down trees. Policymakers could help forests sequester hundreds of millions of tons of additional carbon every year with such measures, the authors said.

The study also, perhaps counterintuitively, calls on the construction sector to use more wood in order to cut back on more carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel. Specifically, they say policymakers should incentivize the use of engineered wood, made of layers of wood pressed and bonded together.

“It uses a fraction of the carbon as compared to other building materials,” said Kapur Macleod.

Jonathan Thompson, Research Director and Senior Ecologist at the Harvard Forest and a lead author of the report, added that engineered wood could be made from trees that are already being killed by invasive insects, which increasingly threaten forests in the northeast.

“Creating a market for those trees would let us manage those forests for the long term,” he said.

Finally, the authors suggest policymakers increase tree coverage in urban and suburban areas by at least 5 percent. To do so, they say officials could provide funding for city and town tree-planting and maintenance efforts.

Bronson Griscom, senior director of natural climate solutions at the nonprofit Conservation International, did not work on the new research but called it “excellent.” He said he would have added another solution: transforming fields used for agriculture back into forests.

The authors said their report excluded that option in order to focus solely on strategies already under consideration and that have the best chance of being put into practice. Their recommendations were based on interviews with dozens of interviews with policymakers and forestry experts across the region.

“It was important to us that the pathways we suggest aren’t something we’re dropping from above,” said Kavita Kapur Macleod, a consultant with the firm KKM Environmental Consulting and the lead author of the report. “We wanted to find the pathways that were the most practical and that make the most sense for New England to implement.”

Protecting trees could come with other perks, too, the report says, including cutting down on air pollution, providing shade and cooling in hot urban centers, and boosting tourism.

“We hope the climate is reason enough,” said Kapur Macleod. “But the co-benefits are huge.”

By Dharna Noor, Globe Staff

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.