July 01, 2015 Urban Lawyer

Urban Forests as Weapons against Climate Change: Lessons from California's Global Warming Solutions Act

by Ellis Raskin
Climate Change

Climate Change

Ellis Raskin is a J.D. 2015, University of California, Hastings College of the Law; B.A. 2010, Occidental College. I would like to thank Professor Brian Gray for inspiring me to think about the deeper issues associated with climate change and Robert Schaeffer for his superb suggestions. I would also like to thank Professor David Takacs, Kay Ambriz, and Kate Garman and the entire staff of The Urban Lawyer for their guidance and support.

I think that I shall never see A billboard as lovely as a tree. Perhaps unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.

Ogden Nash 1

I.  Introduction

Although ninety-five percent of Californians live in urban areas,2 there has been little discussion in legal scholarship about the ways in which climate change will affect California’s urban ecosystems.3 Researchers now know that climate change will have a profound impact on the ways in which municipalities manage urban forests.4 As the planet gets warmer, urban planners will need to utilize ecological resources that help urban residents mitigate, and adapt to, the effects of climate change.5 One way to introduce these vital resources is by incentivizing reforestation in urban areas through programs that sequester atmospheric carbon in urban forests.6

On one hand, sequestration programs are like sweeping dust under the rug. You can hide the dust, but doing so does not eliminate the original source of the dust. Eventually, the dust will keep piling up and you will not have any place left to hide it away. On the other hand, sequestration programs can serve as an important weapon in fighting climate change. These programs can eliminate atmospheric carbon while restoring ecological resources to underserved communities.7 California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32, hereinafter “A.B. 32” or the “Act”) embraces the possibility of using urban forests to fight climate change by sequestering carbon in new trees. The Act creates unique opportunities, but the Act will also create new challenges for the management of urban environmental ecosystems.

As a tool for fighting climate change, urban reforestation programs will have a relatively modest effect on global carbon sequestration efforts: some experts suggest that urban forests account for only two or three percent of the United States’ carbon-sequestration potential.8 However, in this critical moment in Earth’s history, every tree and every ounce of carbon could potentially make a difference in the fight against climate change. Urban forests also provide a range of benefits beyond carbon sequestration.9 For example, urban forests regulate temperatures, limit pollution, block wind, provide shade, and offer habitat opportunities for urban wildlife.10 Reforestation programs also offer the unique opportunity to invest in urban ecosystems that are more resilient and more likely to survive drastic changes to our environment.11

California’s investment in urban forests will also offer a range ecological, economic, social, and aesthetic benefits to urban communities.12 Many of these benefits will help urban communities adapt to our planet’s changing climate over the upcoming decades.13 These programs, however, require careful coordination and oversight: private landowners and project managers must work together to make sure trees are properly introduced and managed in urban ecosystems. Additionally, project managers must be mindful of potential property conflicts when planting new trees, and project managers should work with scientists and municipalities to plant trees that are the most resilient and provide the greatest number of benefits.

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