Climate Change: Congress Should Support Role of Forests to Fight Climate Change

05/25/2011 02:15 pm ET

By Will Rogers

This week the Senate is taking its turn discussing climate-change legislation. Sens. Boxer and Kerry have introduced their version of a bill to create a comprehensive program to address climate change. Any final climate legislation should include support for programs that reward America's forest owners for taking steps to capture atmospheric greenhouse gases. This makes sense for slowing climate change, and for growing the economy of rural America.

As we have learned, the build-up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the main cause of climate change. Carbon dioxide acts like a glass in a greenhouse roof, allowing sunlight in, but also trapping the heat created from sunlight radiating off the earth. The more carbon dioxide we have in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped.

According to scientists, U.S. forests absorb and store 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted annually by smokestacks, cars, and other sources. And a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that figure could be doubled to 20 percent - if our forests are managed well. That doubling, in turn, would be equal to switching every passenger car in the United States to a hybrid, says a recent article by researchers at Duke University.

How we do achieve that goal? One big step would be to provide financial incentives for private forest owners to capture and store more carbon on America's hundreds of millions of acres of private forestlands. Opportunities to capture more carbon range from adopting management techniques that increase overall timber stand volume to placing land under a permanent conservation easement that assures it will never be developed--protecting both carbon already stored in those lands and the potential for future carbon sequestration.

Climate legislation can provide these financial incentives in two ways. First, forest owners who can demonstrate and quantify real, additional, permanent, and verifiable carbon absorption in their lands should be able to sell those extra reductions as "offsets" to utilities and other businesses that emit carbon. That capability is at the heart of "cap and trade" legislation, which is designed to drive these kinds of market-based solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

Second, climate legislation should establish a supplemental incentives program to reward forest owners who cannot affordably measure carbon emission reductions to support offsets, but are still willing to take specified steps to increase carbon storage on their lands. This will ensure that even smaller scale landowners can be part of the solution.

The great news is that the discussion draft released by Senators Boxer and Kerry includes both a robust forest offsets program and a supplemental incentives program. If the final climate bill follows this lead, we will bring our forests into play as a major emissions reduction tool that puts Americans to work in the woods.