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Wildfires, carbon sinks and the value of forestry policy

Did you know that American forests offset 12% of total U.S. emissions? With wildfires back in the headlines, Energy Analyst Pavel Molchanov discusses the crucial role of reforestation efforts.

Families in North America need no reminder that the summertime wildfire season is off to a severe start, and the trend can be expected to get even worse in the years ahead. If there’s any good news, it’s this: The interplay of forestry and climate can work in both directions, meaning reforestation can play a needle-moving role in mitigating CO2 emissions.

Forests offset 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions

As many of us were taught in grade school, plants absorb CO2, making them a natural offset to human-made emissions. The technical term is biological carbon sequestration, also known as a carbon sink. Think of it as “negative” emissions, offsetting 12% of the U.S. total, or 750 million metric tons. Remarkably, that approximately equates to the emissions footprint of all commercial and residential buildings combined, or half as much as the electric power industry.

U.S. forests offset 12% of total U.S. emissions – approximately the amount created by all commercial and residential buildings combined.¹

While there are various aspects involved, the most direct means of expanding this carbon sink is reforestation, which is planting new trees. The potency of trees for CO2 absorption is highly variable based on tree type, soil type, geography and other factors. As a rule of thumb, an average young tree can absorb CO2 at a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per year, while a mature tree absorbs three to four times that amount.1 According to the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, 48 pounds per year is a good proxy for a mature tree. Making some simplifying assumptions, an acre of such trees acts as a sink for the annual carbon footprint of two gasoline-fueled passenger cars.

Listen to the full episode with Energy Analyst Pavel Molchanov on For What It’s Worth:




  
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The U.S. loses about 5 million acres of tree cover annually1

Deforestation mostly comes up in discussions about developing countries, such as Brazil (specifically, the Amazon rainforest) and parts of Southeast Asia, but it is also relevant domestically.

In a typical year, America loses about 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of tree cover, which is a key metric tracked by land management experts. To be clear, not all tree cover loss is bad in the sense of something that needs to be minimized. On average, two-thirds are associated with forestry – routine timber harvesting from forest plantations.

U.S. Tree Cover Loss (thousands of hectares)

Year

Agriculture

Forestry

Wildfires

Other

Total

% Change

2016

11

1,530

549

160

2,250

-1%

2017

9

1,580

512

199

2,300

2%

2018

3

1,410

508

159

2,080

-10%

2019

3

1,310

633

154

2,100

1%

2020

4

1,610

230

116

1,960

-7%

2021

4

1,780

144

102

2,030

4%

Source: Global Forest Watch, Raymond James research

The mere act of harvesting a tree is not, in and of itself, deforestation. By that standard, the whole of the forestry industry would be regarded as unethical and illegitimate, and the same logic would presumably apply to agriculture as well. What distinguishes responsible forestry from deforestation is whether the trees end up being replanted. ScienceDirect defines deforestation as the “permanent removal of forest cover by people and the conversion of land for other uses, such as agriculture or infrastructure.”

On the other hand, wildfires and other drivers of tree cover loss, such as urbanization and encroachment by farmland, are problematic trends that can cause permanent deforestation. The number of wildfires in the United States has remained broadly stable over the past 30-plus years. However, they are becoming more severe in terms of the amount of acreage burned each year.

Not all wildfires occur in forest settings, but the upward trend of wildfire activity, in the context of climate change, creates heightened risk related to forests as can be seen on a regular basis by headlines from California and other western states in America.

U.S. Wildland Fires

Year

Number of fires

Total acreage

1985-1989

361,497

14,899,205

1990-1994

367,546

15,516,281

1995-1999

418,323

17,719,300

2000-2004

378,876

22,109,958

2005-2009

406,614

39,105,433

2010-2014

324,762

29,375,488

2015-2019

315,953

39,093,086

2020-2024 (estimated)

311,538

41,375,270

Source: National Interagency Fire Center, Raymond James research

By destroying trees, forest fires obviously decrease the size of the area’s carbon sink. But there is also a second effect related to CO2 emissions, and this one is even more serious. When a tree burns down, all of the CO2 that it had previously absorbed ends up being released into the atmosphere. Thinking back to the aforementioned absorption figure of 48 pounds per year for a mature tree, this means that a 50-year-old tree might release upward of one metric ton of CO2.

Government historically a minor player in reforestation; Inflation Reduction Act provides a boost

Roughly 1.6 billion trees are planted in the United States in an average year. How much of that is handled by the Department of Interior on federal acreage? The answer is approximately 20 million, or a bit more than 1%. For context, 31% of U.S. forestlands are federally owned, with a further 11% owned by state and local governments. The private sector has 58% (20% corporate, 38% noncorporate).1 Needless to say, for 31% of forestlands to have only 1% of tree planting is rather weak.

Some of the lesser-known portions of the Inflation Reduction Act pertained to forestry. Recall, the law was enacted in August 2022, and 2023 is the first full calendar year of implementation. Approximately 4% of the law’s estimated spending was allocated to forestry-related initiatives. While none of this is game-changing, it is a step in the direction of more actively using federal resources in support of reforestation.

The Inflation Reduction Act’s forestry provisions include:

  • $18 billion for climate-smart agriculture via Natural Resources Conservation Service programs that often include forest-related practices.
  • $1.5 billion for grants to cities and nonprofits via the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry division, with a particular focus on underserved communities.
  • $700 million for the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which encourages the protection of privately owned forestlands through conservation easements or land purchases.
  • $450 million to the U.S. Forest Service for providing forest-carbon grants to private landowners.
  • $100 million for the Wood Innovation Grant Program of the U.S. Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry division.

¹Source: Raymond James equity research

The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete.


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