Forests cover more than 60 percent of land in Massachusetts. To avert the most dire consequences of climate change, those woodlands must be protected, a recent report from the United Nations’ climate change body warns.
Trees play a crucial role in climate plans because they pull carbon from the atmosphere and, through the process of photosynthesis, convert it into trunks, roots, and limbs.
“In New England, we sit on a giant and powerful carbon-sucking machine,” said Andrea Colnes, director of the Exemplary Forestry Center at the New England Forestry Foundation.
But when they are cleared, trees release all the carbon they’ve stored. In a report published last month, the world’s top climate body cautioned that the world is chopping down forests at an unsustainable clip. In 2019, about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions came from deforestation, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found.
In the push for a livable climate, slowing that process could go a long way. In fact, protecting forests — as well as other ecosystems that sequester large amounts of carbon, like peatlands and wetlands — could reduce emissions by as much as 30 percent.
“That’s good news among the grim news,” said Bronson Griscom, senior director of natural climate solutions at Conservation International and a lead author on the recent IPCC report.
Unfortunately, right now, New England is moving in the wrong direction.
The region’s forests have rebounded since Colonial settlers chopped down most of them by the mid-1800s. But in recent years, rates of deforestation have increased. A 2017 Harvard study found that New England is losing an average of 65 acres a day of woodlands, mostly due to development.
There are ways for loggers to reduce that impact, Griscom said, such as waiting until trees have grown larger before harvesting them. This allows them to sequester more carbon over their lifetimes and helps reduce the number of trees chopped down.
Another way to lessen the ecological damage of logging is to remove only high-value timber from forests, being careful to minimize damage to surrounding trees, Griscom said.
“Often times when logs are removed, they’ll get banged [on other trees] and cause damage, like by causing them to rot on the inside,” he said.
Regulating tree cutting in Massachusetts isn’t easy, since more than three quarters of the state’s woodlands are privately owned by over 212,000 different people and entities.
But Colnes said changes can be made by providing financial incentives for sustainable forestry practices. That’s more practical, she said, than leaving all forests untouched since, realistically, people are not going to stop using tree-based products.
“The right question to ask is, ‘What is the role of forests and products that come out of the forests in helping us move away from a fossil fuel-based economy and towards a bio-based economy?’ ” she said.
In fact, the world may have to start using more wood and paper products to replace materials like plastic, concrete, and steel that are more carbon-intensive to produce, she said.
Still, research shows that untouched wooded areas sequester the most carbon. A 2019 study by scholars from Tufts University, Harvard University, and Trinity College found that forests that are “largely free from human intervention” absorb the most greenhouse gas.
Though environmentalists don’t always agree on the best approach, it’s clear that forests’ health must be improved. How do we then balance the need for tree-based materials with the need to conserve trees?
“It’s really complicated,” said Stephanie Roe, global climate and energy lead scientist at the World Wildlife Fund and a lead author of the UN climate report. “There’s no silver bullet.”
In addition to preserving existing forests, as well as wetlands and other natural carbon stores, the report highlights the importance of reforesting areas that have been clear-cut. Roe said this must be done with great care to avoid unintended negative consequences for local wildlife.
“But if it’s done in the right way with, for example, ecosystem-based restoration practices that use native species, that has a whole host of benefits for biodiversity,” she said.
Ecosystem restoration is an essential part of any climate plan to keep warming below catastrophic levels. But it cannot be a replacement for cutting emissions, especially from the fossil fuel energy sector, the new UN report makes clear.
“The idea that land can essentially compensate for other sectors is a flawed interpretation of the data,” Roe said. “It can’t compensate for delayed emission reductions in other sectors.”