Reframing the Role of Forests in Our Climate Strategy

Who Will Speak For The Trees
January 18, 2024
Jad Daley
CEO, American Forests

by Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests & Yishan Wong, CEO of Terraformation

As we enter a new year, working to unite climate efforts on the heels of the 28th Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP28), there are signs of hope. Most importantly, the agreement at COP28 to transition away from fossil fuels signals that we are at last getting serious about our emissions problem — the ultimate driver of climate change.

Yet emissions reductions are only part of the solution. We urgently need to draw down the carbon already in our atmosphere — and research continues to demonstrate the powerful potential of nature-based solutions. A fresh round of collaborative studies, including one authored by a team featuring noted skeptics, has once more confirmed the critical capacity of forests to slow climate change through carbon sequestration while providing essential protection for human communities and biodiversity. 

There’s no silver bullet to unlock forests’ full potential to fight climate change. Researchers have found that we can most effectively build on forests’ current carbon sequestration capacity by protecting existing forests and optimizing their health, climate resilience, and biodiversity through best management practices, while expanding forest cover in ecologically appropriate places through planting and natural regeneration. 

Planning for ecosystems, not monocultures

Make no mistake: the carbon-sequestering benefits of native forest ecosystems can most powerfully be achieved through restoration that is aligned with nature. Reforestation plans should seek to unlock the rich biodiversity that creates the most powerful and resilient carbon sinks, creating conditions for native plant species, beneficial insects and birds, fungi, soil bacteria, and other organisms to thrive in the replanted forest. 

While there is a place for less complex forest types where forest products are the primary goal, an over-reliance on such forests can leave us vulnerable — as recent years’ wildfire seasons have demonstrated. Centering global reforestation efforts on regenerating diverse, ecologically rich forests will help overcome widespread misconceptions that replanting forests harms biodiversity, and dispel the notion that somehow using forests for carbon sequestration leaves us unable to stack climate outcomes with other urgent needs — like solving our global biodiversity crisis and securing public water supply areas.

By pursuing ecologically sound reforestation, we make the most of the opportunity to deliver carbon capture while delivering a broader environmental solution. Areas that remain degraded by the legacies of colonialism, such as abandoned mining and ranching projects, can be restored to their pre-colonial ecosystems. And by replanting native forests on wildfire-scarred land vulnerable to encroachment by invasive species, we take action to help prevent future wildfires.

Forests: an essential piece of a comprehensive climate strategy

While forests play a crucial role in mitigating climate change, they are part of a larger ensemble of climate solutions. This consensus must form the bedrock of our approach to environmental restoration and climate strategy alike. Their ability to sequester carbon, support biodiversity, and regulate ecosystems is invaluable, yet forest conservation and restoration must be complemented with other strategies. Recognizing forests as allies, rather than saviors, in our fight against climate change sets a realistic and achievable path forward.

Yet a few misunderstandings about the capacity of forests have created a fog of controversy that risks our ability to make the most of their carbon storage potential. One of the most persistent of these emerges in the dialogue around permanence, especially when advocates for the still-nascent technology of mechanical carbon dioxide removal note that trees can be cut down, allegedly showing that their carbon storage is impermanent.

Any individual tree in a forest is not a “permanent” carbon fix in a static sense. It is the cycle of trees living and dying in a forest, cycling carbon and other nutrients through the ecosystem, that offers a dynamic and perpetual form of carbon sequestration. This symbiotic system is the process that creates this perpetual storage. This distinction is crucial, and it demonstrates why restoration must be approached on the ecosystem level rather than by mass-planting individual species of trees. 

The efficacy of perpetual carbon removals is confirmed by the reality that forests in the United States, as an example, are providing a net gain in carbon sequestration. In 2021, U.S. forests and forest products captured and stored nearly 775 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, enough to offset 16.7% of carbon emissions from fossil fuels in the same year. If we undertake the right actions to maintain and grow this perpetual carbon solution, like protecting existing forests and expanding forest cover with reforestation, our forests will play a key role in overcoming climate change.

Redefining carbon financing

The role of carbon credits in delivering forest carbon gains has been twisted and misconstrued — so much so that the invaluable benefits of reforestation and conservation projects have become lost in controversy. The efficacy of carbon credits is unrelated to the validity of the fundamental science behind forests as an ally in the climate fight. Yet every time a carbon project comes into question, the voluntary carbon market that enables all projects falls under suspicion, with some commenters suggesting we can’t trust forests as a climate strategy. 

This raises the question: if we abandon this system, who benefits? The fact is that carbon financing supports forest projects that might otherwise not be funded. These projects, largely in the tropics and the global south, can also provide environmental benefits far beyond carbon sequestration — protecting biodiversity, reducing the impact of extreme weather events on communities, improving water filtration in fragile coastal ecosystems. We cannot allow a few bad players and projects to be the reason carbon and nature-based markets are abandoned altogether.

We should consider carbon credits as one mechanism of funding among a suite of options, which include $14 billion in U.S. public sector funds recently made available through the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Bill — an unprecedented amount that is being used to directly support climate-friendly actions like reforestation of our public lands without any tie to carbon markets or offsetting emissions. Yet we must also redefine carbon markets around a narrower and more rigorously defined set of forestry actions where the carbon gains are so clean-edged and unambiguous that they can credibly be used to show measurable progress toward climate goals. 

Forward to the future

Trees are vital, but they are not the sole solution for climate change. Done right, the same actions in our forests that help reduce greenhouse gases can also increase forest resilience and the ability of these resources to protect people and wildlife from climate change. 

Forests offer a perpetual solution to our need for long-lasting carbon storage, one that adapts and evolves over time. And while carbon credits can play a role, they are merely one part of a larger, more intricate quilt of public and private finance that we must mobilize to undertake all climate-beneficial actions in our forests. By embracing these truths, we can develop a more effective, comprehensive approach to combating climate change and preserving our planet for future generations.

About the Who Will Speak for the Trees? Series

At a time when human economic development is prioritized over the needs of nature, the Who Will Speak for the Trees? series features top reforestation leaders with a broad range of restoration expertise, including climate tech, monitoring, science, finance, media, and more. These diverse voices offer expert viewpoints to instill confidence in how humanity can support nature to deliver a forested future for all living things on Earth. Join us for this ongoing series to learn more about the science of reforestation and how restoring ecosystems is part of a comprehensive climate solution.

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Jad Daley
CEO, American Forests
Jad Daley is serving as the 40th president and chief executive officer of American Forests, the nation’s oldest forest conservation organization, founded in 1875. Under Daley’s leadership, American Forests has grown three-fold and launched partnerships to tackle climate change and social inequity in cities across the United States. Follow Daley on X (@JadDaley).
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