Tackling Climate Change Begins With Investing in Our Forests

Image: © EcoPhotography 

by Larry Selzer, President and CEO, The Conservation Fund 

Climate change threatens every life support system we rely on—food, water, and biodiversity. The things that keep us alive are at risk, which means we are at risk. We recognize that climate change is the most pressing global challenge we have ever faced, and we must act now.

The burgeoning level of investment in new technologies around energy production and efficiency as well as direct carbon capture are exciting. They give me great hope that in the long run we will outpace the challenge of climate change. But even with the increase of investment and innovation dramatically quickening, getting new technologies to operate at the scale we need to move the needle is years, if not decades, in the future.

While we may have to wait for those solutions to come online, we already have access to critical technology that is working right now and at scale. After millions of years of evolution, it operates with an unmatched level of efficiency and provides more than one life sustaining product. It’s called a forest.

Forests play a significant role in the climate change battle. In the United States, forests remove 16% of our annual greenhouse gas emissions. They also provide essential benefits to people, wildlife and communities—clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, critical habitat for wildlife to roam and thrive, and opportunities to explore the outdoors, something we always need, but even more desperately during the pandemic. And forests support more than two million jobs tied to sustainable forestry; good jobs that are critical for the future of rural communities and cannot be exported overseas.

New innovations within our forests are making the technology more powerful than ever before. In the forest carbon markets, we are seeing the application of remote sensing and machine learning tools that are driving down cost curves and making forest management for climate outcomes economically competitive with traditional timber management. In the built environment, we are seeing advances in engineering and design that are allowing wood products to substitute for carbon hog materials like concrete, steel and even tires.

All of this is converging at the exact moment that the next generation of philanthropists and impact investors are pursuing financing strategies that recognize the value of nature and human well-being alongside financial outcomes. There is untapped potential for forests to be a driver of positive outcomes, unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime.

No alternative energy or engineered carbon capture technology will support life on earth the way that forests do. Yet, we are losing forest technology at a rapid clip. Every year the U.S. loses nearly a million acres of forest to fragmentation and development. Land that used to grow carbon-absorbing trees now grows rows and rows of houses. This rate of conversion is ever-increasing as more people seek to move out of dense, high-cost cities in search of more space, access to nature and other inherent benefits. Once these forests are gone, no amount of tree planting, not even a trillion trees, will make up the difference.

We need to make sure the forests we have remain. And the good news is we know how to do this with permanence, efficiency and verifiable additionality in carbon uptake. This is a proven technology that already is operating at scale and is poised for growth. We must invest in it to sustain it now. If we do nothing, these forests will be sold, subdivided and ultimately converted—forever lost.

So yes, we need innovative and effective technologies to address climate change. But in the years it will take to create and deploy these new technologies, we cannot afford to lose the one technology that both eliminates greenhouse gas and helps support all life on earth today.

If businesses, governments and individuals invest in the advancement of both manmade and natural climate solutions now, especially forest conservation, we can truly utilize all of the tools in our belts to remove harmful carbon from the atmosphere. Our human connection to forests makes them a living, breathing technology that we must nurture, sustain and protect to ensure the best possible future for our world.

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