Forests, Farms, and Fields Absorb 15 Percent of U.S. Carbon Emissions, and No One Knows What’s Going to Happen to Them

February 24, 2016

By: Huffington Post

We always hear that everything’s bigger in Texas, but what about Alaska? It’s bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, and its forests hold almost half the living wood of the United States, while its marshes, bogs, and tundra comprise 63% of the country’s wetlands.

These ecosystems store massive amounts of carbon in their trees, soil, and peat, but no one knows how much is there – let alone how much will go up in CO2 as the climate changes over the next 20-50 years. That’s a challenge for US climate policy, because the forests, farms, and grasslands of the United States sponge up roughly 15% of the country’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. If that carbon sink shrinks, then US emissions could creep upwards – and the problem isn’t limited to Alaska.

How Uncertain are We?

How Uncertain are We?

In the US government’s official projections of greenhouse-gas emissions to 2025, “LULUCF” stands for “Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry”. Here you see it’s a huge wildcard that could be the difference between reducing emissions and staying the same.


Why Does it Matter?

“There’s a lot of debate around whether land carbon will continue to play this large role, or whether the sink will begin to decline,” says Emily McGlynn, a Senior Advisor on Renewables & Environment at Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends. “That uncertainty alone is deeply concerning.”

She hopes a new report, “Building Carbon in America’s Farms, Forests, and Grasslands: Foundations for a Policy Roadmap”, will help to reduce that uncertainty.

Co-authored by McGlynn, the report offers a detailed but accessible overview of the activities that impact land-based carbon stocks – from cattle-grazing and agriculture to forest management – as well as impacts beyond immediate human control – such as drought and flooding. It then looks to see what is known and what is unknown about the impact of these activities on land carbon, and it takes stock of current policy tools that can be leveraged to promote better land management. In the short-term, it calls for more coordination of data, and looks at opportunities to create value for landowners who manage their land to increase stored carbon.

The Alaskan Wildcard


The Alaskan Wildcard

Map of Alaska’s area compared to the 48 conterminous United States: It’s massive, and it’s full of forests, but no one know how much carbon it stores, or what will happen as the climate changes. Photo Credit: Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting) – Own work Data: NGDC World Coast Line (public domain) NGDC World Data Bank II (public domain)


Carbon Markets as Conservation Bridge

The report is part of an effort called the Land Carbon Policy Roadmap (LCPR) initiative, which Forest Trends launched last year to address the land carbon challenge.

The authors see carbon markets as boon to owners of managed forests interested in preserving their carbon stocks, and they call for greater integration of carbon pricing into conservation funding and clear protocols for the creation of climate bonds and other mechanisms that will draw private investment into the conservation.

“Current U.S. government programs to support private investment are focused on grants, loans, and loan guarantees, which can support project finance for projects that already have interested equity investors,” they write. “The barrier to be addressed is stimulating interest from more equity investors. Therefore, to attract investment, new policy should seek to create demand for land carbon and reduce the risk of financial return for any land carbon delivered in order to attract investment and allow projects to operate over the long term.”

The Next Steps: Plugging Gaps

The report sets a short-term goal of structuring existing data in a way that’s more accessible to policymakers – beginning by categorizing carbon gains and losses according to their drivers, so that policymakers will be able to better target their actions, and by providing more consistent accounting across the country and more clarity regarding uncertainties.

“We’ve identified a lot of policy options for addressing land carbon,” says McGlynn. “The question now is how to start setting priorities. Better data and targeted analysis can help us get there.”


By: Huffington Post

Your comments.

  1. John K. Jeglum says:

    There is a strong movement by agriculturists and ecologists to use the natural capacity of vegetation to photosynthesize, combining CO2 with H2O, producing complex organic compounds, some contained in plant litter, and some moving down in the roots and into the soil. We term this ‘Regenerative Agriculture’, or ‘Natural Carbon Capture and Storage’ (Cloutier and Hirashima, Film; Rodale Institute 2014; Cummins and Paul 2015; Pollan 2015; Kisstheground and Regeneration International 2016).

    It is estimated that 1/3 of the C added to the atmosphere has come from the soil, mainly owing to human mismanagement of the soil and deforestation. This provides a large source of carbon dioxide that could be recaptured naturally by photosynthesis. Recently there has been a realization that if the soil is managed in certain ways, it is possible to use the natural capacities plants to fix CO2 out of the air, move organic compounds into the roots, and sequester carbon in the soil. Large amounts of carbon can be sequestered for long periods, hundreds or thousands of years. Soils rich in carbon have the capacity to hold water and nutrients, and to provide for continuing production of vegetation, including food for humans. With proper management, using techniques that are known and being developed by the Rodahl Institute (2014), Marin Project and many others, it could be possible to extract large amounts of CO2, and even start to reverse the steady rise of CH4, which presently is at 403ppm, moving back to 350ppm which corresponds approximately 1.5 deg C temperature rise (we are at ca. 0.9 deg C higher now).

    A good use for damaged or rotten organic is to compost it and use it to amend on fields and pastures, to promote improved carbon capture by sequestering in the soil. See video by Michael Pollan. R & D should be promoted in our Agricultural Schools and government ministries. Carbon capture and storage by nature, i.e. photosynthesis, organic manufacture, and sequestering in the soil, is cheaper than CCS by mechanical means, and could result in massive capture by enlightened agricultural management. We could be promoting composting of various organics and placing thin topping on grasslands and pastures. John Wick, in the Nicosia Native Grass Ranch in California, is experimenting with spreading small depths, 1/2 “, on grasslands. According to Wick, if California could compost its current available organic material, it would cover 5% of California’s range land. And that amount alone would offset the emissions of the entire California agricultural industry (Lochhead 2014).

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