Imagine a world where we invest billions of dollars in improving ecosystem resilience to help combat climate change: conserving and restoring our forests, restoring wetlands, reweaving the landscape tapestry between urban forests, suburbs, farms and wildlands…all because doing so sucks up vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and provides pure oxygen in return…
A fantasy, you say?
California has started to do just that. With a resounding 2:1 backing of public opinion, the state has begun implementation of its landmark climate law, AB 32 – the Global Warming Solutions Act. This strong public support is no doubt bolstered by the fact that AB32 is creating thousands of new jobs. It will also save money, make cities more livable, and ensure future supplies of clean, cool water.
AB 32 aims to reduce California’s CO2 emissions to their 1990 levels by the year 2020. Most of this is achieved through conventional regulations, but about 20% of the necessary reductions will come as a result of the “cap and trade” program. If California’s largest polluters cannot meet their reduction targets on their own, they can buy pollution credits at auction, the first of which was held just before Thanksgiving. With a solid success in the first auction, which yielded almost $300,000,000, revenues from this auction are estimated to total $60 billion dollars by 2020.
These revenues must be spent on additional actions that quantifiably reduce net emissions of CO2, helping meet AB 32’s emission reduction goals of reducing CO2 emissions levels to those of 1990, by the year 2020. So, starting next summer, California will begin investing the revenue to transform its infrastructure, both built and natural, to proactively address climate change.
Built infrastructure-- transportation and energy systems, housing and the like is a major source of emissions and can be made much more efficient, thereby reducing emissions. Natural –or “green” infrastructure, like our forests, wetlands and grasslands- absorb CO2 naturally---just by their very existence. Forests store enormous amounts of carbon by breathing in CO2 and breathing out oxygen, storing the carbon in the trees and soil. By keeping more forests intact and restoring former forests, we can safely take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it for hundreds of years and more. Improving the condition of our green infrastructure is a key way to reduce CO2 emissions, just as is working with our built infrastructure.|
For those of us in conservation this is a unique moment in history. It poses the opportunity to not only harness forest conservation as a solution to mitigate the risks of climate change, it also harnesses the solutions to climate change to support forest conservation. Forest conservation is one of our most climate-efficient and cost-effective means to quantifiably and durably reduce CO2 emissions. We can prevent forest loss and its concomitant emissions, while also safely increasing the total carbon uptake, or sequestration, that forests do.
Working with our green infrastructure to address climate change proactively has been far less recognized than other infrastructure changes, such as transportation or built infrastructure changes. California is about to change that—not at the expense of things like energy efficient housing, better transportation, lower carbon renewable fuels, but complementary to them. Forest and other natural systems conservation are clearly identified as areas eligible for investment.
Done right, these investments will create substantial new jobs in rural as well as urban areas, and help ensure the survival of myriad other species. We can put people back to work planting trees in cities, and softening those concrete landscape into a healthier, safer, more ecologically sustainable place to live. This is especially valuable if we plant native species that support our native wildlife. We can hire more people to get back into the woods to do restoration and management for more resilient forests. That management will yield a lot of non-commercial, small material that can be used for small scale, sustainable bioenergy in rural communities. In turn, this creates more new, green and sustainable jobs. Forests also are our primary watersheds—so conserving them helps protects our water even as climate change threatens water supplies.
California is again defying conventional wisdom, and in more ways than one. Commonly, people think of our treasured natural landscapes as being the victim of climate change. Most projections show that climate change could well cause irreversible threats to the natural lands that provide our water and well being, as well as to the survival of innumerable species. Yet, those same natural lands hold a key to mitigating and combatting climate change. And California aims to use that key.
Forests, across the globe, are our most important and expandable terrestrial carbon banks. They are one of our most efficient and inexpensive natural systems to combat climate change and play an essential role in and climate adaptation.
Forests are also essential natural systems to maintain through climate change, as they are the largest sources of our water, and provide irreplaceable habitat for myriad species. As such, the fate of our forests, atmosphere, and ourselves, is inherently linked.
California is the only state in the US to have an economy-wide climate change policy. While some have disparaged California for regulating greenhouse gasses as unfriendly to business or unnecessary, the damage wrought by super-storm Sandy reminds us of the need for action. Further, the jobs and environmental benefits gained by investing the auction revenue to help reduce emissions will be a boon to the economy and prepare us for a changed climate. Using regulation –wisely-- to catalyze effective actions to address climate change stimulates new economies and is a critical step that benefits us all.