Following the house resolution on a Green New Deal, policy experts, politicians, and thinktanks around the country have been inspired to contribute their own vision for a national climate plan. The Kleinman Center wants to ensure that we too are offering our vision for a successful national response to the global climate crisis. The below is one of six policy efforts that we see as essential elements of an effective climate plan. View the full list here.

Climate Change is too often viewed as just an energy problem. While it is true that the majority of anthropogenic greenhouse gases are a result of energy use (electricity generation, transportation, and heating), climate change is also deeply related to the way we treat our land and ecosystems. Trees, grasslands, mangroves, and sea grass are responsible for capturing, and chemically sequestering up to 13% of the emissions that are produced by humans every year. Arguably the easiest way to reduce our net carbon emissions as a species is to ensure that the planet is capable of recycling more carbon out of the atmosphere.

Newly planted forests absorb 2.5 tons of carbon per acre each year and a mature forest (>10 years) can absorb nearly four times this amount. As a point of comparison, the average human produces approximately 1.36 metric tons of carbon each year. Part of the reason that we are faced with a climate crisis right now is because forests and other carbon sequestering ecosystems have been destroyed while human population and per capita carbon emissions have increased rapidly.

46% of the United States used to be forested. Today, that percentage has fallen to 33%. If, through improvements in land use density, afforestation, and integrated agricultural practices, we could restore the United States to its original forest cover, those additional 300 million acres of new forest could absorb at least 680 million metric tons of carbon a year which is roughly equivalent to reducing the national annual carbon dioxide emissions of 5.4 billion metric tons by 46%. As that forest cover matured, it could very likely absorb the equivalent of the nation’s entire contribution to planet-warming gases.

Even more important than expanding forest cover, is preventing existing forest cover from being removed. Not only does this nullify the carbon capture potential of mature forests — which, again, is much higher than that of new forests – but it also releases enormous quantities of carbon from the disturbed soil and biomass. Deforestation in the United States has remained relatively stable for almost a century, but elsewhere in the world development pressure, demand for increased agricultural yields, and droughts are causing many of the world’s largest and most carbon productive forests to be destroyed especially in South America, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and Russia. 

Ecosystems, just like man-made systems, will experience increased stress from climate change. It is our responsibility to ensure that ecosystems on public lands are protected and bolstered against climate change as much as possible through enhanced bio-diversity, reduced human influence, and careful system monitoring. That said, approximately 60% of US forest cover and US land in general is privately owned. This means that the protection and sustainable management of public lands, while important, will be insufficient to guarantee sustainable land use. In addition to protecting public ecosystems, we also need to provide private land owners (including farmers) with incentives to pursue afforestation and conserve existing forest and other carbon absorbing ecosystems. Instead of the US government subsidizing land owners to grow corn to produce ethanol, it should incentivize landowners to grow vegetation to fight climate change. This can be achieved through a robust federal provision for ecosystem services built into a national carbon pricing scheme, offering landowners small but meaningful incentives to manage their land in a way that helps reduce our nation’s contribution to the global carbon budget.

Oscar Serpell

Associate Director of Academic Programming
Oscar Serpell oversees student engagement activities, new student programming, and alumni connections. He also participates in several key research projects at the center and also writes blog posts and policy digests on timely energy policy topics.