California’s Forests and Global Climate Change—Changing the Game

By
Thursday, October 27th, 2016

California’s forests can help us fight climate change— if we let them. By recognizing the value of healthy, intact forests, we can use regulations and incentives to invest in the preservation and restoration of our forests—not only curbing climate change, but preserving clean air and water while protecting and restoring native habitat and biodiversity.

California’s forests can store (or “sequester”) carbon dioxide while mitigating the increasingly extreme environmental effects of global climate change. Incredibly, scientists have shown that deforestation and other forest resource extraction techniques that deplete forestland productivity are the second-largest source of global carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuel combustion. Carbon dioxide emissions from forest resource extraction activities are known to account for as much as 20 percent of annual totals both globally, and in the State of California.

Redwood forest resource depletion is troubling because of the impact it has on forestland productivity, carbon sequestration, maintenance of clean water, impacts on air quality, healthy soil preservation, and biodiversity. In the redwoods, forest wood fiber and biomass in managed landscapes in the redwoods have been depleted to at most 10-15 percent of historic levels. According to a recent study, California’s forests are currently emitting more carbon dioxide than they sequester. Sixty-one percent of the overall reduction in forestland carbon dioxide storage is associated with losses in carbon density per-acre, i.e., less wood fiber and biomass is growing per-acre today than has grown in the past.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 2016, research conducted via Humboldt State University found that the coast redwood forests of Northern California are capable of sequestering more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per-acre than any other forest type on earth due to amount of relative biomass density and their well-renowned capacity for fire, drought, and insect resistance. Changes in public land management as a result of the Northwest Forest Plan, namely the protection of large trees, have turned the public lands of the Pacific Northwest from a major carbon source to a carbon sink.

Recognizing the handwriting on the wall regarding our current climate crisis, the State of California has moved to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and to seek out ways to store or “sequester” more carbon dioxide. In 2006, the California Legislature passed, and then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed, Assembly Bill 32, the “California Global Warming Solutions Act.” AB 32 established a state-wide carbon emissions reduction target aimed at dialing emissions rates back to 1990 emission levels by the year 2020. The 2020 target is established as the first step in achieving a much larger long-term objective of an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by the year 2050 established by Executive Order of then-Governor Schwarzenegger. Ten years later, the State legislature enacted and Governor Brown has signed Senate Bill 32, which calls for reduction in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 in order to keep the state on-track to meet the larger 2050 reduction goal.

AB 32 implementation has been placed under the charge of the California Air Resources Control Board, a subsidiary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. CARB is using a combination of regulation, innovation, and incentives to attain greenhouse gas reduction targets in many industry sectors in California. For example, a low carbon fuel standard and a light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas standard have been adopted, energy efficiency programs have been strengthened and expanded, building and appliance standards have been strengthened and expanded, and a 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) has been adopted along with regional transportation-related greenhouse gas reduction targets. “Cap and Trade,” CARB’s market-based program under AB 32, is predicated upon limiting or “capping,” emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses with individual targets based on industry sector, with reductions in the overall and individual emissions “caps” each year. For each ton of emissions allowed under a cap, the state issues a permit. Businesses can sell or trade the permits on a secondary market as well. As the cap declines, the number of permits declines and the overall value of the permits, as well as the reductions, increases.

CARB also set a net carbon sequestration target for California forests in its first Scoping Plan.

However, the California forest products industry sector, and its regulating entities, the Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry, have been slow to respond and get on the bandwagon of addressing the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with industry harvesting activities, while also moving to up the ante on the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered through the growing of more, larger, older trees.

In 2012, the State Legislature enacted AB 1504, legislation designed to light a fire under the Board and Department, and the forest products industry generally, to start critically evaluating and changing, as necessary, modern legal, regulatory, policy, and industry standards to insure reductions in industry greenhouse gas emissions—to go, “above and beyond the status quo” to ensure California’s forests serve to sequester more carbon dioxide. AB 32 implementation requires a break from the so-called “business-as-usual” mentality; however, a combination of legal, regulatory, and incentive-based program changes are necessary to get the forest products industry moving in the right direction.

EPIC is engaging in AB 32 implementation at several levels. First, EPIC has been involved in stakeholder working groups and other discussions surrounding the development of the California Forest Carbon Plan by the Forest Climate Action Team (FCAT), an inter-agency working team tasked with creating the roadmap for forestry in California in the future. EPIC is also engaging in critical review of existing forest practice legal and regulatory frameworks in preparation for upcoming advocacy at the State Board of Forestry as it works to ensure compliance with AB 32, AB 1504, and other climate-related legal requirements.

Protecting the redwood forest into the future means addressing global climate change and human contributions to it. Thankfully, it is the redwoods themselves that provide us with the opportunity and roadmap for doing so, if we can manage to see the forest for the trees. Change can be arduous and slow, frustrated by industry sectors invested in perpetuated “business as usual.” But the din created by everyday citizens and groups like EPIC that stand up for the natural world, the public, and the public’s interests, must accordingly be louder, bolder, and more committed than ever if we are to preserve what remains, and work to heal and restore the rest.