Forest Mitigation

Fall colors of the Adirondacks in northeastern New York, on Sept. 25, 2019. Courtesy photo by Emily de Vinck.


There’s a lot of discussion about climate change these days and how best to address it.

Electric powered vehicles, offshore wind farms, and even machines to suck carbon dioxide out of the air promise a very different future. Thankfully, we’ve got “carbon sponges” at work every day in our backyards, parks, and forests doing remarkable work. You guessed it – trees!!

Roughly speaking, a tree is made up of about 50% carbon by dry weight. When we walk across the floors in our houses, we don’t think about walking on a carpet of carbon, we just think of it as plain ole’ wood. Whether it’s a tree, or something made from a tree, as long as wood isn’t allowed to decay or burn, it “locks up” the carbon inside. Scientists call this process sequestration. Out in the woods, the faster the tree grows, the more carbon it’s sequestering both in the above ground parts of the tree as well as in its roots. If the tree gets old and dies or is killed by insects or wildfire, decay sets in and carbon dioxide goes back into the air.

Why so much attention on trees when discussing climate?

It turns out that trees may be one of the lowest cost solutions for removing lots of carbon dioxide from the air. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in 2019 trees removed about 12% of all the greenhouse gases produced in the US, and research shows that trees could do even more. Reforestation has the single largest maximum mitigation potential and the majority of this potential occurs in the northeast. How we grow trees and encouraging the use of wood rather than materials produced with fossil fuels can increase carbon sequestration even more.

Many big companies are trying to get ahead of the curve by hiring forest landowners to manage their forests as what scientists call carbon “sinks.” Organizations like the American Forests Foundation and private companies like Silvia Terra act as matchmakers to bring companies looking to keep their costs low for sequestering carbon together with landowners who want to make money by selling the carbon sequestering powers of their trees. Though not for everyone, such arrangements can be a win for all involved.

In future Quarterly Harvest newsletters, we’ll take a quick look at how this growth, removal, use and decay works together in what is called the forest carbon cycle; look at reasons why using wood to make things is more climate smart than if we use many other materials; discuss new technologies being developed to use wood in unique ways; take a look at how scientists figure out how whether using wood or some other material is best in reducing greenhouse gases and see how forest landowners can play an important part in a lower greenhouse gas future.

By Al Steele, Co-Director, USDA Northeast Climate Hub