30 Percent Solution, Build It With Wood

Climate Solutions: Climate, NEFF and the Next Five Years

Oct. 14, 2021
New England Forestry Foundation

In summer 2021, New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) ran a climate solutions special issue of its newsletter, Into the Woods. The issue’s introduction and four articles are closely tied together, and so have been posted online as a single series of blog posts. Here are links to the series:

Post 1 (this post), Climate Solutions: Introduction | Post 2 (this post), Climate Solutions: Climate, NEFF and the Next Five Years | Post 3, Climate Solutions: A New Climate Wedge | Post 4, Climate Solutions: Pioneering Climate-smart Exemplary Forestry in New England | Post 5, Climate Solutions: Putting New England’s Woods to Work

Writing by NEFF Executive Director Bob Perschel, photo of a Cedar Waxwing on a NEFF property in Downeast Maine by Lauren Owens Lambert

When the climate emergency fully revealed itself, New England climate scientists and policy makers came to the realization that it wouldn’t be enough to drastically reduce emissions; in order to get to the relative safety of “net zero emissions,” we would actually have to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Then they asked themselves, what was the best way to do that? And the obvious answer was trees—the 31.7 billion trees already growing in New England.

That’s why New England Forestry Foundation—the organization with the longest history and broadest experience in sustainably managing forests across New England—now has a critical role in helping solve the climate emergency. We’ve known since our 1944 founding that certain forestry practices make forestland more productive—that is, help the trees to grow more wood on a given acre of land over time. It has always been our mission to bring excellence in forestry to all New England forests to improve wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality, recreational opportunities, and valuable forest products. But what could we accomplish if we applied our mission to climate change? Our first step was to pull the data from decades of management on the more than 150 Community Forests that NEFF owns. This historical data confirmed that over decades, NEFF has increased the timber and carbon stocking in the forest while harvesting valuable, renewable, climate-friendly products. We had already proven the concept; the data is in our files, and the proof is in the woods.

Then we turned to the forestry and wildlife ecology experts to help us codify the practices that have enabled us to achieve these exceptional results. We needed a set of standards that could be easily followed by other landowners and that we could use to model and predict the impact on climate change if they were applied broadly across the region. NEFF calls them Exemplary Forestry standards.

Next, we turned our attention to the sustainable wood products we could harvest from New England forests as they are managed to store more carbon. There aren’t that many materials you can use to construct buildings. Wood is one of them, but concrete and steel became the favorites for tall building construction over the last 100 years. Unfortunately, these materials are the bane of climate change mitigation because manufacturing them emits a tremendous amount of carbon pollution. If we continue to build that way, we can never solve the climate problem. There are new techniques in use in other parts of the world that used engineered wood products to build tall buildings. Couldn’t we use the same techniques right here in our New England cities, with regionally produced wood? We studied the problem and the answer was: yes, we could.

Then the proverbial light bulb went on: what if we managed New England forests according to Exemplary Forestry standards and used some of the products to build tall wood buildings? Couldn’t we improve our forests, perhaps help the affordable housing crisis and contribute to climate mitigation all at the same time?

We ran the numbers this year, and the results are stunning. This approach—using local wood grown under Exemplary Forestry to construct tall wood buildings—paired with halting the loss of forests to development could potentially contribute 30 percent of the entire energy-related emissions reductions needed in New England over the next 30 years. It could help the entire region achieve its short-term targets to keep us from frightening climate tipping points and also hit the longer-term target of “net zero” emissions by 2050.