Forests and forest management have significant roles to play in addressing climate change in the United States. U.S. forests currently sequester nearly 40 gigatons (Gt) of carbon and are growing at a rate that offsets about 700 million tons (0.7 Gt) of CO2 emissions per year, roughly 10% of U.S. total emissions. Forest management in the coming decades could increase forest carbon capture by another 100 million tons per year. However, forests and forest sequestration cannot substitute for emissions reduction in the long term, since forests will eventually reach steady state, where CO2 uptake and release are roughly in balance. Achieving an additional 100 million tons of sequestration per year will present significant challenges, requiring the addition of 2.7 million newly forested acres per year for the next several decades, as the amount of additional land suitable for reforestation declines. Moreover, many existing forests will be stressed by the climate changes that are now inevitable, and those same changes will reduce the areas that can support forests. Failure to manage forests with climate change in mind will result in significant additional carbon releases as trees are assaulted by wildfire, insect infestation, and disease increased by a changing climate. This makes the deep decarbonization necessary to stabilize climate all the more difficult.
Because forest ownership and authority in the United States are distributed among the federal government, state governments, local governments, and private owners, a variety of legal tools must be employed to realize the potential for carbon sequestration and limit the potential damage of climate change. Federal, state, and local governments all have parts to play. National and state laws and regulations should require carbon sequestration tracking and provide credits for sequestration in sustainably managed forests in emissions trading programs. Federal and state programs should include additional incentives for use of biomass generated from “low-use” wood produced through sustainably managed forests in programs to replace fossil fuels for local heating and cooling and to co-fire biomass in electricity generating stations with the CCS capacity. Incentives include local land use regulation and conservation easements to protect existing forests and to encourage reforestation that will sequester carbon, private certification of carbon sequestering forests, and conservation tax incentives to enhance carbon capture on private land.