12/09/2009 12:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Change: What Have Forests Got to Do with It?

Much of the focus at this week's climate summit in Copenhagen will be on capping the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses. But another important focus will be on the protection of forests and other natural systems that absorb CO2 and keep it out of the atmosphere.

The need to prevent third-world deforestation is a well-established and vital global priority. Less well known is the role our own domestic forests can play in absorbing and sequestering greenhouse gases.

According to the U.S. EPA, our forests already absorb 13 percent of all the CO2 generated in the U.S. each year--and that proportion could be raised to 25 percent with expanded forest conservation and carbon-friendly management. That's a huge climate benefit, especially when you consider that conserving forests to protect their carbon capacity will also benefit drinking water, wildlife habitat, and other natural resources.

Many observers expect that protecting forests will be a recognized way of reducing carbon under any emergent carbon market, and some businesses have begun funding forest conservation efforts as a way of earning carbon credits.

My own organization has been reforesting land in Louisiana using funds from several electric utilities--these native bottomland forests will to remove three million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere over the next 70 years, equal to removing 500,000 cars from the road. The Nature Conservancy recently announced a partnership with Blue Source--a private group with expertise in funding carbon projects and marketing carbon credits--to protect private forestlands for carbon sequestration in Pennsylvania.

However effective these market-based efforts might be for large forests, we cannot overlook the one-quarter of U.S. private forests smaller than 100 acres. These small forests will generally be left out of offset markets due to economies of scale and other issues. To make sure that these forests are part of the climate solution, my organization and the American Forest Foundation support legislation before Congress to offer "supplemental" carbon incentives, through the USDA, which would strengthen permanent conservation and carbon-friendly management of these forests. These forests can make critical contributions to improving our overall carbon storage capacity.

Intact forests offer many benefits, but what we do with--and how we care for--what forests remain may be among the most important decisions we make to address climate change.