Blog Post

Seeing the Forests for the Carbon: Panel Looks for Opportunities and Obstacles

Jun 8, 2018 | Michael Zwirn, Jad Daley

Panel from left to right: Jad Daley, Kevin Rennert, Robert Bonnie, Rita Hite, and Sacha Spector. Photo courtesy of Emily Barber.

On May 23, Resources for the Future, American Forests, and the Forest-Climate Working Group brought together a diverse panel to explore Forest-Climate Solutions for a Carbon-Constrained Economy: Assessing Opportunities and Obstacles. The participating organizations and invited guests—representing government, think tanks, non-profits and academia, forest landowners and industry, carbon markets, and other stakeholders—represented an array of perspectives. However, all agreed that forests are a critical piece to delivering solutions for climate change, and that meeting American obligations under international climate change discussion depends on the convergence among diverse stakeholders.

With active participation from guests, speakers from RFF and the participating organizations identified some key points of shared interest and potential consensus for action:

  • Forests as the “swing vote” on climate change: US forests and forest products already provide an enormous carbon sink—over 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2E) per year, equating to about 14 percent of US carbon emissions at current levels. Panel moderator Jad Daley, Vice President for Conservation at American Forests, noted that just maintaining this carbon mitigation wedge from forests would offset a dramatically increasing percentage of US emissions as the power sector shifts rapidly to lower carbon energy sources. But maintaining this carbon sink will depend on retaining the American forest sector’s current ability to absorb and store carbon despite the escalating impacts of climate change on forest health. Other speakers argued for an emphasis on expanding forest carbon sequestration beyond current levels, through reforestation, afforestation, and more assertive forest management. This would better enable US forests to deliver a portion of the additional gigatons of “negative emissions” beyond current levels that many think will be necessary to meet the climate action goals set in Paris.
  • Financial incentives can take many forms: Kevin Rennert, director of the Social Cost of Carbon Initiative at Resources for the Future, laid out the diverse approaches that states are pursuing for carbon pricing mechanisms, including new cap-and-trade proposals, alongside different forms of a carbon tax. As the federal government has vacated the discussion on carbon pricing, the states are asserting themselves as policy laboratories on the topic, including pricing the value of carbon in forestry. The panel and audience agreed that there is no single policy incentive pathway to encourage forest carbon mitigation, and that almost any climate pricing mechanism could offer some degree of opportunity. Many speakers noted that any carbon pricing scheme could help advance forest carbon as long as a portion of revenue is devoted to forests and the right programmatic mechanisms to catalyze needed landowner actions are identified or created. Rennert and others further noted that we do not necessarily need a new climate-specific revenue to take action—the forest sector can compete politically for existing public dollars through existing government programs meant to benefit forests such as conserving land from development and funding restoration.
  • Engage forest landowners in the right way: Privately held forest lands represent over 55 percent of the United States forest estate. Panelist Rita Hite of American Forest Foundation focused discussion on the need to engage private landowners on climate-friendly management strategies, while understanding their diverse attitudes toward climate change and the competing priorities that shape their management actions. This means finding carbon mitigation-focused practices that align with other landowner objectives, and not requiring that landowners embrace these practices in the name of climate solutions. Dialogue continued about the simple power of providing climate information to landowners. Forest landowners have an inherent motivation to respond to stresses like drought, fire, pests, and diseases, so providing them with timely, relevant science on forest management offers a path to promote healthier and more resilient forests that also sequester more carbon per acre.
  • The urgency of federal action: Speakers including panelist Robert Bonnie of Duke University suggested that forests will be a natural first step toward broadening bipartisan consensus for climate action. Bonnie, former Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the US Department of Agriculture, suggested that forest conservation offers a wide array of benefits beyond climate solutions, from rural economic development to public drinking water supplies. Given the synergy of climate and other goals that might motivate lawmakers, many of the panelists saw the potential for growing bipartisan interest in federal efforts, such as pilot programs like Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s Forest Incentives Program Act of 2018, a target for inclusion in the Farm Bill.
  • The role of philanthropy: While there was great discussion among the audience and panel about rebuilding climate momentum at the federal level and the importance of state-level policymaking to demonstrate proof-of-concepts on various carbon pricing strategies, multiple speakers spotlighted the role of the private sector and philanthropy. Sacha Spector, Environment Program Director at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, spoke about the role of philanthropy in creating the enabling conditions for government agencies, scientists, non-profits and other entities to flourish in terms of organizational capacity, scientific and policy innovation, and sustained collaboration. DDCF and a growing number of other philanthropies are increasingly attuned to the critical role that forests must play in the meeting the United States’ climate goals. 

This panel was just the first of a potential series of events spotlighting the role of forests and forest products in a changing climate. Researchers from RFF and American Forests hope to delve more deeply into particular aspects of this work, including the carbon impacts of biomass, the management of private and public forest land, and the emerging climate science about the carbon sequestration potential of forests in the midst of rapid change.

To join the email list for RFF’s future Forest Initiative, please contact Program Director for Land, Water, and Nature, Michael Zwirn. If you would like more information about the Forest-Climate Working Group, including possible membership, please reach out to American Forests’ Rebecca Turner.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.