Trees Are the Secret Weapon of America’s New Climate Bill

TThe Inflation Reduction Act represents a major tectonic shift in America. This legislation is a tectonic shift for America. It allows Americans to leave behind decades of political paralysis and choose to take climate action. The financial incentives it offers will allow them to pursue diverse solutions in a time of real danger. While you probably have already heard how this will change the game for clean energy, you might not know the IRA will also power up the world’s oldest climate-fighting technology—nature.

Two good reasons are given for lawmakers to include nature in their historic legislation. There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. This is the only way to scale up, and despite all of our noble efforts to create new technologies and tools for humans to accomplish it.

According to leading studies, nature-based solutions to climate problems, such as increasing carbon capture in agricultural soils and large-scale reforestation have the potential to reduce carbon emissions by roughly one third to keep climate change under control.

The key to natural carbon reduction is trees and forests. Over its life, an average American tree will absorb approximately 1,200 pounds worth of carbon dioxide. All of this adds up. Together trees and forests in the U.S. currently capture and store 17 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions annually.

This is only a beginning. The Nature Conservancy conducted research that found there is potential to double tree-based carbon storage in America if we reforest the 133,000,000 acres of land considered ecologically appropriate, which would be enough for more than 60 million trees. By protecting forest ecosystems from destruction and adopting smart forestry practices such as strategic thinning, we can increase forest carbon gain and decrease forest carbon loss due to wildfire and mortality. You can manage for a more dense forest with the right species of trees to capture more carbon in the long-term.

These carbon benefits alone would justify investment in nature-based climate solutions, but fighting climate change with nature is also valued for a second reason—investing in nature can solve many problems at once.

Consider that extreme heat is fueling the public health crisis caused by our current climate crisis. The number one reason for death from extreme heat in the United States is heat-related. This will increase to close to 100,000 by the end of this century because of climate change. Fortunately those wonderful carbon capture devices—trees—are also our most powerful natural solution for heat, with ability to cool the area beneath them more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why cities such as Phoenix, Detroit, and Boston have launched initiatives to spread equitable tree canopy citywide as a way to save lives and energy while naturally capturing more carbon emissions.

Consider that forests are the home of more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial wildlife species and will play a major role in stemming global biodiversity crises. In America, climate smart reforestation programs are targeting areas such as the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley in Mississippi to restore defunct agricultural lands and plant native forests rich with carbon that will also support federally-listed endangered and threatened species. The right forest investments can help slow climate change, and also save species.

This combination of public and private benefits is why the Inflation Reduction Act was approved by Congress to provide $30 billion for climate-based solutions that are nature-based. It includes:

  • Urban Trees:U.S. Forest Service will grant $1.5 billion in grants to cities and other partners. The funds are focused on those areas that have equitable tree cover and can protect residents from the effects of extreme heat and environmental pollution. These funds will be used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide $1.8 billion and U.S. Department of Transportation for $3 Billion, respectively, for investments in heat resilience, including cool paving and community preparedness.
  • Climate-Smart Forestry:U.S. Forest Service grants, incentives, and loans total $1.25 Billon to assist private landowners in protecting forestlands from being developed and using climate-smart forest practices. U.S. Forest Service funding $3 billion and Department of the Interior for urgently-needed forestry treatments to restore ecosystem health and enhance wildfire resilience in national forests, wildlife refuges and conservation areas. Protecting old-growth forests such as Giant Sequoia groves, California is one of the special initiatives.
  • Agroforestry and climate-smart agriculture:$20 Billion is available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture as grants and incentive programs to encourage and support farmers, ranchers, and other landowners in adopting practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect soil carbon. It is important to note that this amount will also include billions in funding for tree-focused techniques on agricultural lands like silvopasture (adding trees grazing lands), and planting trees to create buffer streams and windbreaks.

There’s just one catch to this hopeful story—these dollars represent potential, but do not yet guarantee progress. There are substantial challenges to implement these funds in the right pace, scale, focus, and climate that legislators intended. Success will require two significant commitments by the federal government.

First, you must be open to public-private partnerships in innovative ways. The federal agencies cannot scale up their operations tenfold as quickly as new funding requires. Instead of merely hiring new federal employees or working through conventional program channels, agencies can turn to credible and carefully vetted private sector partners for supplemental in-kind support, block grant administration, and other services. Private sector partners can provide millions in private matching money to power this collaboration and allow federal dollars to reach even further.

Second, it is important to make sure that expenditures match the goals set out in the legislation. This means that we must integrate climate science into our decision-making process in forestry to ensure the best practices and carbon capture are being used. Agency can help identify forests with high carbon potential and encourage changes in the forestry practices in those areas. Also, they can identify where forests are most immediately at risk of catastrophic carbon loss due to climate impacts—such as intensive wildfire—that could be averted by investing in the right forestry treatments.

This will require a commitment to ramp up agencies’ applied science, including forest carbon data and analysis, and push out the needed information regarding where to work and what climate-smart forestry actions are needed to private landowners and public land managers alike. The USDA Climate Hubs, which were established to draw together all of USDA’s climate expertise and focus it on real world applications, give the federal government a ready pathway to provide this support—and a model hat can be replicated within other parts of the federal government.

We must move quickly from a moment of great climate potential to the hard work of implementation. We can make natural climate solutions more efficient if we stay with the plan and work on these details.

Note: TIME’s owners and co-chairs Marc and Lynne Benioff are among American Forests’ philanthropic supporters.

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