Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last week doubled down on a Trump Administration pledge to support global tree planting aimed to combat climate change.
Proponents of the Trillion Trees Act, including local U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a cosponsor of the bill, say that it uses proven science to provide a practical climate remedy.
“Trees are nature’s solution to cleaning excess carbon from the atmosphere,” Stauber, a Republican from Hermantown, said in rolling out the bill. “So I am proud to help encourage communities across our nation to plant trees and properly manage forests.”
Opponents of the strategy don’t like the solve-all packaging, and say it’s unwise to think of a massive tree planting effort as the solution to global climate change. The New York Times last week called it a “dangerous diversion” from efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
But taken at face value, it’s a step forward, Duluth scientist Chris Wright said.
“I think it’s a great idea, and I’ve been working on forest carbon sequestration here,” said Wright, a research associate working on natural climate solutions at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The News Tribune asked Wright to help fact-check the legislation, which would support planting one trillion trees globally by 2050.
“We have a lot of understocked forest in Minnesota, which is kind of a surprise,” Wright said, citing U.S. Forest Service data which shows 44% of Minnesota forest land is less than fully stocked.
The science behind a trillion trees initiative is sound, Wright said.
“If you increase stocking levels by planting trees on poorly stocked land, you would increase carbon uptake,” he said.
He referenced a process most folks learned about for the first time in middle school science.
“It’s time-tested technology called photosynthesis,” Wright said. “Through photosynthesis, trees use carbon dioxide, sunlight and water to make sugars that become cellulose.”
Carbon sequestration practices are being adopted across landscapes. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last year issued a study related to sequestration tactics for agricultural land. Last year, Minnesota Public Radio reported on a Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa plan to develop a forest carbon offset program across 9,000 acres.
Carbon offset programs are something Wright works with closely. Offset programs allow culprits of heavy emissions to offset those by paying to plant trees or prevent the logging of trees, he explained. The Blandin Paper Company has a 175,000-acre carbon offset project near Grand Rapids in north-central Minnesota, according to MPR in 2019. Wright described the paper company a major player in the movement.
“If you increase stocking levels by planting trees on poorly stocked land, you would increase carbon uptake.”
He also noted the Brooklyn, New York-based online retailer Etsy, which has adopted a carbon-neutral package delivery model — buying carbon offsets to replace emissions used in its product deliveries.
Not all of offsetting is planting trees. It can manifest in forest management practices, too. A 50-year logging rotation might be extended to 60 years, for instance, Wright explained.
Furthermore, the Trillion Trees Act would support tax credits for companies and developers who build with products that store carbon, such as timber.
Stauber said the Trillion Trees Act has the potential to increase logging output.
But what about reforestation's place in the hierarchy of climate solutions? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just recorded the earth’s hottest January on record, and the 421st consecutive month with above-average temperatures.
Wright sees the legislation as something that ought to yield bipartisan support, even though its 10 authors are Republicans.
“The evidence is that planting trees and carbon-centric forest management could account for up to 20% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year,” Wright said. “That’s pretty much the same picture globally. It certainly isn’t the entire solution. We have to reduce emissions with renewables. But it sure is a big chunk.”
This story originally listed the incorrect Blandin reference. It was updated at 8:21 p.m. (Feb. 19, 2020) after it was originally posted at 9:21 a.m. Blandin Paper Company is the correct reference. The News Tribune regrets the error.