New Report Finds Protecting 30% of US By 2030 Provides Major Carbon Offsets

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

Scientists increasingly have shown that investing in nature-based climate solutions is critical to any plan for ensuring that global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.  New research by the Center for American Progress (CAP) takes this analysis the next step and calculates the carbon sequestration benefits of various nature-based solutions being contemplated as part of the effort to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.  Forests and other lands in the United States, if properly conserved, have the potential to store an additional 1,000 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.  Indeed, by avoiding the loss of existing natural areas and restoring others, U.S. lands could absorb more than 150 MMT of carbon dioxide equivalent above today’s baseline every year by 2030, which is comparable to offsetting all the annual emissions from commercial air travel in the United States.

Why This Matters:  We need to use our full arsenal of tools to sequester carbon.  The benefits of conserving current protected areas plus restoring lands and wetlands include improving biodiversity, ensuring environmental justice, providing outdoor recreation opportunities, strengthening the economy, not to mention the health benefits humans receive from clean air and water and healthy oceans.  But now we know that the carbon sequestration benefits are significant as well.  

Step One:  Protect Existing Natural Areas

If we can establish new protections that move toward a 30% protection goal, we could capture at least 34 MMT of carbon dioxide equivalent annually by 2030. This amount of carbon offsets can be achieved through a combination of holding on to carbon already stored in natural areas vulnerable to development plus the future carbon sequestration secured by protecting these natural areas.

Step Two: Restore Forest, Wetlands and Other Natural Places

According to CAP, “targeted, science-led, ecological restoration to improve the condition of protected lands could increase the sequestration capacity of ecosystems by at least 117 MMT of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.”  New research shows that at least 20 million acres of land in the U.S. are in need of reforestation.  These are lands that had been covered by forests but no have no trees.  If we re-planted trees on an additional 1 million of those acres per year, that would result in at least 20 MMT of additional annual sequestration in 2030.  If we further restored 55 million acres of private lands through planting of native species or other management practices, we could conservatively sequester an additional 70 MMT of carbon.

As the report concludes, “Conserving and restoring natural areas in pursuit of a 30×30 goal will quickly protect and expand America’s carbon sink and should be central to any strategy to address the climate crisis—a tried-and-true solution to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, while also benefiting the land, water, wildlife, and communities that rely on healthy natural systems.

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