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The U.S. Approach to Combating Climate Change through Enhanced Forest Management at Home and Abroad

Sedi Caine


  • Discusses the challenges of the United States’ strategies for both a domestic and an international plan to combat climate change.
  • Addresses obstacles to sustainable forest management.
  • Covers both the international and domestic approaches proposed by the U.S.
The U.S. Approach to Combating Climate Change through Enhanced Forest Management at Home and Abroad
jonathanfilskov-photography via Getty Images

One week after taking office, President Biden issued the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (EO). The president promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and “move quickly to build resilience . . . against the impacts of climate change. . . . ” In April of 2021, President Biden fulfilled his promise to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement and subsequently submitted the United States of America Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). An NDC is an obligation of conduct that outlines the strategies and approaches each country intends to take in order to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The new U.S. NDC commits the U.S. federal and state governments to improve carbon sequestration through investment in forest protection and management. In line with the directives of the EO and the NDC, the United States has set in motion both a domestic and an international plan to combat climate change, but there are significant challenges those strategies must overcome.

The Domestic Approach

In his EO, the president established the National Climate Task Force and instructed the secretary of the interior, in consultation with the heads of various agencies, to submit a report with recommended steps that the United States could take to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. In November of 2021, the U.S. Department of State and the Executive Office of the President released The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050 (Strategy Report). This 65-page report, in conjunction with the specific strategies recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), lays the foundation for future domestic climate action policy in the United States regarding our forests. Those strategies can be found in the USDA Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy: 90-day Progress Report (USDA Report).

Chapter 6 of the Strategy Report outlines the executive approach to removing carbon through 2050 and beyond. The United States has 8 percent of the world’s forests which, in combination with other lands, accounted for offsetting approximately 12.4 percent of economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019. According to the Strategy Report, conservation and restoration efforts in the deforested areas of the United States have made forest lands a net carbon sink over the last several decades. Unfortunately, while forest sinks are still increasing, the rate of increase is declining with total carbon removal in the land use, land use change, and forestry sector having decreased by approximately 11 percent since 1990. The USDA Report provided seven recommended elements for a Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forest Strategy (CSAF), which account for the broad spectrum of responsibilities USDA manages. Of particular interest for forest management are elements three, five, and six. Element three is a recommendation that USDA incorporate forest carbon and climate impacts into the decision-making process for USDA funded programs. The fifth recommended element calls on USDA to “support new and better markets for agriculture and forestry products generated through CSAF practices.” The sixth element is that USDA develop a forest and wildfire resilience strategy.

Addressing Obstacles to Sustainable Forest Management

Several challenges exist to bolstering and expanding forest sinks in the United States. First, a large number of forested lands, including substantial portions of public lands in the Western United States, have older forests that have sequestered significant amounts of CO2, but now have a total carbon uptake that is not significantly different from zero. In other words, they are important carbon sinks, but cannot contribute to future sequestration. These forests are more vulnerable to natural disturbances such as the increased threat of wildfires. The threat of natural disasters only highlights the importance of developing wildfire strategies to ensure that currently stored carbon is not released into the atmosphere. A second challenge is that, with respect to policies, forest lands in the United States are owned and managed by various stakeholders that operate under different legal, social, and environmental norms. While the federal government cannot create one overarching policy that binds and accounts for the needs of all parties, federal policies, incentives, and investments can play a central role in supporting coordination and cooperation between parties in order to achieve U.S. land sector goals.

The Strategy Report focuses on achieving GHG benefits by avoiding conversion of forest land into other uses. Additionally, there are potentially up to 133 million acres of land available for reforestation in the United States. The U.S. can achieve near-term net carbon benefits through strategies such as longer harvest rotations, increased carbon storage in harvested wood products, improved forest management, and reduced impact and severity of natural disturbances. One of the Strategy Report’s aims is to strengthen existing and support new emerging timber markets in order to help maintain and expand forested lands.

The USDA Report offers three forest-specific strategies for achieving the U.S. climate goals. First, taking climate change into consideration when implementing existing USDA programs provides an opportunity for smarter climate action strategies that could reduce our overall carbon footprint. Second, USDA can promote conservation of forest resources by supporting new and better markets for agriculture and forestry products. According to the USDA Report, wooden building materials currently account for 9 percent of annual carbon sequestration and storage in the United States. Promoting additional markets for wood products could enhance carbon sequestration and increase economic opportunity in urban and rural America. USDA could also incentivize profit-seeking private forest landowners by mitigating barriers to entry in order to promote participation in voluntary carbon markets. The third approach is for USDA to develop a forest and wildfire resilience strategy. When a forest burns, the carbon stored in the trees and soil is released back into the atmosphere. As carbon concentrations in the atmosphere increase, our climate becomes hotter and dryer and additional fires are likely to occur creating a dangerous positive-feedback loop. USDA must take steps to conserve carbon-rich, old-growth forests from wildfire and other threats and work to increase the rate of reforestation, especially after disturbances. Increased reforestation will lead to greater cumulative carbon sequestration and the decreased likelihood of additional climate-related fires.

The International Approach

Last November, the United States unveiled the Plan to Conserve Global Forests: Critical Carbon Sinks (Plan) at 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Climate Change and Land: Summary for Policymakers, terrestrial carbon sinks around the globe removed and stored around 30 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions each year from 2007 to 2016. The overarching objective of the Plan is to set forth a whole-of-government approach to conserving these essential global terrestrial carbon sinks. Globally, an estimated 420 million hectares of forest have been lost since 1990. The Plan was designed to meet the goal to end natural forest loss and restore at least an additional 200 million hectares of forests and other ecosystems. By 2030, the United States intends to dedicate up to $9 billion of its international climate funding to support the Plan’s objectives (although funding is subject to congressional approval).

The Plan has four main objectives. The first and second are to incentivize forest and ecosystem conservation and forest landscape restoration through collaboration with partners to promote the value of carbon sinks and catalyze private sector investment, finance, and action. Similar to the domestic approach, this may include promoting voluntary carbon markets to ensure conservation and restoration is the best-cost option and in the economic interest of key stakeholders. According to the Plan report, only an estimated 3 percent of climate finance supports forest ecosystems and market forces see more value in clearing forests than in protecting them. The United States plans to redirect funding efforts through innovative financing approaches that value forests and ecosystems and deliver increased resources to those working to conserve and enhance important carbon sinks. The United States will also collaborate with companies to identify and mitigate the forest- and climate-related risks associated with current business models by incorporating the real value of ecosystems into decision-making, identifying and resolving barriers that prevent businesses from making the necessary changes.

Both the third and fourth goals address long-term capacity and ambition for the conservation and enhancement of carbon sinks. The third is to draw on the technical expertise of U.S. government agencies and partner institutions to help empower stakeholders to develop and deploy their own effective approaches moving forward. The fourth goal is similar, but with a focus on supporting countries in setting ambitious climate goals that reflect a commitment to the conservation and enhancement of carbon sinks. Doing so would address the limited capacity for enforcement, implementation, and accountability, which continues to be a barrier to designing and implementing effective forest protection initiatives.

While it is yet to be seen how these approaches will play out, successful implementation of the domestic and international strategies proposed by the United States will be a key factor in achieving our international goals towards combating climate change.