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Keeping trees in the ground where they already grow is an efficient, low-tech way to slow climate change

A mix of public and private forests in the Oregon Coast Range. Beverly Law, CC BY-ND Protecting forests is a key strategy in the fight against climate change that has not received the attention it deserves. Trees capture and store huge amounts of carbon. And unlike some climate cooling strategies, they don’t require expensive and complicated technology. Yet, although tree planting initiatives are popular, protecting and restoring existing forests rarely attracts the same level of support. For example, forest protection was absent from the US $ 447 million energy law of 2020, which the US Congress passed in December 2020 to revive technological carbon capture and storage. In our work as forest carbon cycle and climate change scientists, we track carbon emissions from forests to wood products and to landfills – and forest fires. Our research shows that protecting carbon in forests is essential to achieving global climate goals. Ironically, we see the US Petroleum Strategic Reserve as a model. This program, which was created after the 1973 oil crisis to guard against future supply disruptions, stores nearly 800 million gallons of oil in huge underground salt caverns along the Gulf of Mexico coast. . We propose to create strategic forest carbon reserves to store carbon in order to stabilize the climate, just as the strategic oil reserve helps to stabilize oil markets. The United States has over 800 million acres of natural and planted forest and woodland, nearly 60% of which is privately owned. USDA / USFS Developing Carbon Stocks Forests absorb about one-third of all human-made carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere each year. The researchers calculated that stopping deforestation and allowing mature forests to continue to grow could allow forests to absorb twice as much carbon. Half of a tree’s stems, branches and roots are made up of carbon. Living and dead trees, as well as forest soil, contain the equivalent of 80% of all the carbon currently in Earth’s atmosphere. Trees store carbon over extremely long periods of time. For example, redwoods, Douglas firs, and western red cedars in the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest can live 800 years or more. When they die and decompose, much of this carbon ends up in the soil, where it is stored for centuries or millennia. Mature trees that have reached full root, bark and canopy development cope better with climate variability than young trees. Older trees also store more carbon. Old trees, which are usually hundreds of years old, store huge amounts of carbon in their wood and accumulate more carbon each year. Log train in Washington State, 1935. Many of the oldest and tallest trees in the Pacific Northwest were felled during the 20th century. John D. Cress, Farm Security Administration via Getty Images There are many misconceptions about forest carbon storage, such as the fear that wildfires in the western United States are releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, fires are a relatively small source of carbon. For example, the enormous Biscuit Fire, which burned 772 square miles in southwestern Oregon in 2002, emitted less than 10% of Oregon’s total emissions that year. Another false claim is that it is climate-friendly to cut down trees and turn them into furniture, plywood and other items because wood products can store significant amounts of carbon. These claims do not take into account cradle-to-grave emissions from logging and manufacturing, which can be significant. The wood products industry releases carbon in many ways, from making products and burning factory waste to breaking down short-lived items like paper towels. Newly planted forests take decades, if not centuries, to accumulate the carbon storage levels of mature and old-growth forests, and many planted forests are repeatedly logged. In a review we conducted with colleagues in 2019, we found that, overall, U.S. state and federal government reports underestimated product-related carbon dioxide emissions by 25% to 55%. wood. We analyzed Oregon’s carbon emissions from timber that had been harvested over the past century and found that 65% of the original carbon was returned to the atmosphere as CO2. Landfills retained 16%, while only 19% remained in wood products. In contrast, protecting the forests of the western United States that are high carbon density and not very vulnerable to drought or fire mortality would sequester the equivalent of about six years of fossil fuel emissions of all. the western United States, from the Rocky Mountain states to the Pacific coast. This ancient forest in Opal Creek, Oregon, where some trees are 500 years or older, stores huge amounts of carbon. Beverly Law, CC BY-ND Focus on large trees In a recently published analysis of carbon storage in six Oregon national forests, we showed why a strategic forest carbon reserve program should focus on mature forests and old. Large trees, with trunks over 21 inches in diameter, make up only 3% of these forests but store 42% of air carbon. Globally, a 2018 study found that the 1% of the largest diameter trees held half of all the carbon stored in the world’s forests. Finds like these spark interest in the idea of ​​proforestation – keeping existing forests intact and letting them grow to their full potential. Proponents see proforestation as an effective, immediate and inexpensive strategy for storing carbon. Old growth forests are more resilient to climate change than young tree plantations, which are more susceptible to drought and severe forest fires. Like the 2,000-year-old California redwoods that survived recent wildfires, many old-growth tree species have weathered the climatic extremes of the past. The creation of forest carbon stores would also help conserve critical habitat for many types of wildlife threatened by human activities. Connecting these reserves to other parks and refuges could help species that need to migrate in response to climate change. Financial incentives can help private owners to conserve forests for carbon storage and wildlife habitat. Using Forests to Achieve Climate Goals More than half of the forest land in the United States is privately owned, so strategic forest carbon stores should be established on both public and private lands. The challenge is to pay them, which will require a major shift in government and societal priorities. We believe that shifting public investments in oil and gas subsidies to pay private landowners to continue to cultivate their forests could be a powerful incentive for private landowners. Many researchers and conservation advocates have called for global actions to slow climate change and reduce species loss. A prime example is the 30×30 initiative, which aims to conserve 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. In an executive order dated January 27, 2021, President Biden ordered his administration to develop plans to conserve at least 30% of federal resources. of controlled land and water by 2030. Recent projections show that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, governments will need to increase their pledges to cut carbon emissions by up to 80%. We see the next 10 to 20 years as a critical window for climate action and believe that the permanent protection of mature and old-growth forests is the best opportunity for short-term climate benefits. [The Conversation’s science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Beverly Law, Oregon State University and William Moomaw, Tufts University. Learn more: Restoring California’s forests to reduce the risk of wildfires will take time, billions of dollars and a broad commitment We calculated how much money trees save for your city Beverly Law receives funding from the US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. She is a member of the Earth Leadership Program and William Moomaw receives funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He is affiliated with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, the Climate Group – North America, the Earthwatch Institute and the Nature Conservancy,

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