The Energy Fetish

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Co-authored by Stephen Lovett.

Within the next few days, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are going to unveil energy and climate legislation. If this legislation is to have any chance at either environmental, economic, or political success, they must avoid the "energy-only" approach that would entirely exclude forests and farms from participation in a solution -- but that has recently gained some traction.

Such an approach, no matter whether through legislation or regulation, is a huge mistake that would needlessly drive up the cost of climate action and dramatically reduce its environmental and jobs benefits.

Despite all the attention deservedly given to power plants and automobiles' contribution to climate change, only about half of global greenhouse gas emissions actually come from energy. Approximately seventeen percent come from the clearing and burning of tropical rainforests and another fifteen percent comes from agriculture (the rest comes primarily from dangerous chemicals used in refrigeration). Because many of the people who first brought attention to the climate crisis have their background working on energy issues, the role of forests and agriculture has tended to get short shrift - but that doesn't mean they're not vital.

We can already see the potential of regrowing forests and restoring lands to reduce pollution: by breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen, America's forests and sustainably managed croplands already suck up more than one tenth of the emissions produced by industry and autos. Sustainably harvested wood can also displace higher energy intensity materials like cement. And there's potential for much more.

According to an analysis by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, almost half the near-term potential for reducing pollution comes from forestry and agriculture. It's especially important in the near-term: even if we move aggressively towards clean energy, it will still take time to replace all those coal-fired power plants with wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy. In contrast, we can save existing forests, restore degraded land, and make improvements in agriculture almost overnight -- so long as we provide the right financial incentives to governments, tribes, and landowners.

And while we're making that clean energy shift, investing in the land will create a bigger jobs bang for the buck than any other sector. New research from economists Heidi Garrett-Peltier and Robert Pollin at the University of Massachusetts show that every million dollars of investment in forest and stream restoration and sustainable land management produces 39 jobs. That's 74 percent more than the second-best jobs producer and six times the jobs of investments in conventional energy sources.

Anyone who's ever worked in a forest knows why. Unlike most modern economic activities, reforestation requires very little capital investment -- unlike building a highway or a power plant that require big outlays in equipment, technology, and basic materials, Mother Nature mostly takes care of trees' physical needs: soil, sun, and water. So you can focus your spending where it will really make a difference for the economy: hiring people. Jobs in forestry include soil scientists, wildlife biologists, tree planters, water engineers, people to nurture and manage the trees over time, and guides. These are the ultimate shovel-ready jobs. Indeed, in some cases, you really don't need much more than a shovel to get to work.

Not all of the jobs-generating investments we need to make in forests are at home. Deforestation in the tropics is one of biggest sources of global warming pollution -- and one of the easiest and most affordable to solve.

Because land in the tropics is so cheap and its trees so carbon-rich, it's very affordable to conserve it by compensating governments, ranchers, farmers, and tribes for protecting their forests. Brazil is starting to reduce emissions from deforestation for $5 per ton of carbon dioxide, one half to one quarter the cost of pollution reductions in the domestic energy sector.

An energy-only approach to climate change would mean that U.S. ratepayers would have to foot the bill for excluding tropical forests from a climate solution. Politically, making reducing pollution more expensive than necessary means it will be that much harder to get the votes needed to support the strong climate targets we need.

Burning of the Amazon rainforest for cattle. Credit: MongaBay/NASA LBA-ECO Project

Protecting these forests will have another major benefit for the U.S. economy. Because tropical land is so cheap and mostly unprotected, it's easy for foreign agriculture and ranching operations to cut them down and replace them with cattle, soybean, and logging operations (many of them illegal). Not only is this deforestation devastating to the climate, the wildlife, and people of the forests, it also allows these foreign operations to U.S. agriculture and timber producers that, while less than perfect in some cases, are way better than those that tear down pristine rainforests for cattle for three to five years.

Left unchecked, tropical deforestation will cost the U.S. agriculture, ranching, and timber industries more than $100 billion between now and 2030 -- a real blow to a rural economy that's already been hit hard by the recession.

It's clear that we urgently need to address climate change -- but we can't afford to do it without our farms and our forests.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Hill.