Carbon storage in Washington’s forests is too small and too risky to play a serious role as a climate change mitigation tool
The eyes of the nation are on Washington state as we vote on a policy that can help fight climate change. Initiative 732 could be the first carbon tax in the U.S. — one that independent Sightline Institute says “would launch Washington to a position of global leadership on climate action.” The scientific community almost universally agrees that climate change (and ocean acidification) are severe threats that demand a rapid response, with putting a price on fossil fuel CO2 emissions being a top priority.
Far and away the single biggest contributor to climate change is CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Indeed, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel emissions in recent years have been roughly 10 times higher than emissions from the next largest global source, land use change, including deforestation (Le Quéré et al., 2015). I-732 is designed to make carbon polluters pay for emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, a simple, important step in driving down those emissions.
Despite the small size of carbon fluxes from forests, enhancing carbon storage in forests is often discussed in Washington state as a tool to fight climate change. There was one such claim in a Seattle Times OpEd from October 21 by Mathew Randazzo. We challenge these claims that forest carbon sequestration should be part of the solution. Randazzo does not spell out in any detail what he means. As always, details matter in such discussions, as the science is complex. We focus here on some of the best available science on the climate and carbon storage impacts of forests, and provide references at the bottom of this article from some of the premier scientific journals in the world.
We also point out that the claims by the Randazzo piece and the Seattle Times editorial board position that I-732 would undermine the state budget have been thoroughly debunked, and we direct you to Sightline.org for a detailed analysis.
It is easy to understand why many wish carbon storage in Washington’s forests to be a viable tool to fight climate change. Such a solution, at first glance, seems like it could support the local forestry industry and create local jobs. However, mitigating climate change requires responses that make scientific sense. Devoting resources to forest carbon sequestration is largely a distraction from the real work needed to mitigate climate change, which is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, most importantly of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion.
Before we explain the counterintuitive science, we wish to acknowledge at the start that there are many excellent reasons to support planting trees in our state and to support the local forestry industry. However, mitigating the threat of climate change is not among those reasons, based on the available science.
In temperate parts of the world (mid to high latitudes), such as the Pacific northwest, the impacts of forests on climate are complex. Forest growth does take up CO2 from the atmosphere, which is the impact on climate many think of. However, forests have other, lesser known impacts on climate as well, including trapping moisture below the forest canopy and altering the way sunlight is reflected off the landscape (termed albedo). In temperate regions such as Washington state, forests can actually warm the climate via these impacts on trapping moisture and reflectivity (albedo) more than they cool the climate by taking up CO2. This has been pointed out in a recent article on reforestation and forest management in Europe over the last 250 years that caused a net warming, not a net cooling (Naudts et al, 2016).
It is in the tropical and subtropical latitudes, far south of Washington state, where science indicates carbon storage in forests could have the most beneficial effect on the world’s climate and could possibly help to buy time until society reduces fossil fuel emissions substantially (Houghton et al, 2015). Even in the tropics, relying on forest carbon storage is risky. Carbon stores could be re-released back into the atmosphere at any point in response to fire or disease, each of which can be made worse by climate change. Indeed, one recent study of forests in the Amazon region concluded that forests there went from taking up CO2 to releasing it during one dry year (Gatti et al, 2014). Furthermore, there have been suggestions that tropical forest may become a source of CO2 even in the tropics, in response to greater extremes of rainfall (Gatti et al, 2014). In order for carbon storage even in tropical forests to be beneficial, it must remain stored essentially permanently (for many hundreds to thousands of years). No one can guarantee that future climate change, disease, and/or land use change won’t cause release of this forest carbon back into the atmosphere, which would bring us back to the starting point, before any forest carbon storage efforts were even attempted.
It is urgent that society act quickly to minimize the risks posed by both climate change and ocean acidification. However, any solution must stand up to the rigorous test of the best available science. We quote from some journals cited below.
The best science tells us that relying on storage of carbon in Washington state forests is risky at best, and quite possibly counterproductive. It is also in many ways a distraction from the essential efforts to reduce emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels.
Passing initiative 732 would represent one important step that Washington can take right now to begin to reduce fossil fuel use and address climate change. Vote yes.
John Crusius, Ph.D.
Richard Gammon, Emeritus Professor, UW Department of Chemistry, UW School of Oceanography
Steven Emerson, Professor, UW School of Oceanography
Bellassen, V., and S. Luyssaert (2014), Managing forests in uncertain times, Nature, 506(7487), 153-155.
Brienen, R. J. W., et al. (2015), Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink, Nature, 519(7543), 344-+, doi:10.1038/nature14283.
Gatti, L. V., et al. (2014), Drought sensitivity of Amazonian carbon balance revealed by atmospheric measurements, Nature, 506(7486), 76-+, doi:10.1038/nature12957.
Houghton, R. A., B. Byers, and A. A. Nassikas (2015), COMMENTARY: A role for tropical forests in stabilizing atmospheric CO2, NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE, 5, 1022-1023.
Le Quéré, C., et al. (2015), Global Carbon Budget 2014, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 7, 47-85,
771 doi: 10.5194/essd-7-47-2015.
Mackey, B., I. C. Prentice, W. Steffen, J. I. House, D. Lindenmayer, H. Keith, and S. Berry (2013), Untangling the confusion around land carbon science and climate change mitigation policy, Nature Climate Change, 3(6), 552-557, doi:10.1038/nclimate1804.
Naudts, K., Y. Chen, M. J. McGrath, J. Ryder, A. Valade, J. Otto, and S. Luyssaert (2016), Europe’s forest management did not mitigate climate warming, Science, 351(6273), 597-600, doi:10.1126/science.aad7270.
Pan, Y. D., et al. (2011), A Large and Persistent Carbon Sink in the World’s Forests, Science, 333(6045), 988-993, doi:10.1126/science.1201609.
PHOTO: Abigail Keenan via Unsplash.com
The policy was developed to de-politicize the climate debate and start a national movement
Our latest news release is helping to generate nationwide news coverage. It notes that I-732 has bipartisan support and is endorsed by over 50 University of Washington climate scientists, Audubon Washington, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and numerous other groups and individuals who believe we must take big action now on climate change. The New York Times says I-732 “could well set an example for other states.”
Read the press release on BusinessWire.
Photo: Jason Blackeye via Unsplash.com
WE CAN WIN!
Ballots are out and voting has begun! This is it, everyone. As the philosopher Seneca said – “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
We are prepared and we have a tremendous opportunity. Say it out loud with us, “we can win”. We can win!
Donations matched up to 20K to put I-732 on TV so WE CAN WIN!
Like we said last week, the doors and the phones are our best play – but not our only play. We are finally getting a little bit of air support, in part thanks to our bird loving friends over at Audubon WA, for our ground game. They’ve created a simple but fun ad for I-732 but we need your help to get it before voters! Check out the ad on Youtube and tell us what you think in the comment section then read on to help us get it on TV.
A donor has put up $20,000 as a match if we can raise it by 10/30 specifically for CarbonWA to push this ad out to undecided voters on TV. I-732 supporters have already managed to get the ad on TV in a few spots but they can’t run it for longer than a handful of days as it stands now. If we complete this match we can get this ad on the air for an additional day – maybe even two.
The Yes on 732 campaign thanks the businesses that have shown their support for promoting clean energy and fighting climate change:
Allumia endorses I-732! We applaud the hard work of CarbonWA and the many volunteers who have created the opportunity to pass legislation that will equitably internalize the negative externalities of regional carbon emissions and set the stage for more companies, states, regions, and countries to do the same.
Kronos, Vashon Island
Richard Britz, Architect and Planner
Vashon Rider Rehab and Consulting
Get the details behind the nation’s first carbon tax swap
This fall, Washington voters will decide whether to pass I-732, an initiative that tackles the root causes of climate change while making our tax system fairer overall. The world is warming at an alarming rate, and putting an effective price on carbon emissions is the single most important thing we can do to reverse this trend. These news stories will help you understand why voting Yes on I-732 will move the state toward two goals: cleaner energy and fairer taxes.
More importantly, doing so would throw economic muscle behind clean energy, shorter commutes, cleaner air and smarter cities. It would use the market, not regulations, to choose winners and losers in the clean tech race. It would help Washington state, in the apt words of the initiative’s promoters, fulfill its moral responsibility to leave a livable planet for future generations. And it plans do so without wrecking the economy or growing government.
“Carbon Washington’s proposal is a brilliant first step.”
“I think there are some lessons that could be learned from the initiative in Washington state about a revenue-neutral carbon tax.”