High-Level Dialogue on Forests and Climate Change, COFO23 Special Event
I am honored and humbled to be here among some of the world’s foremost champions of forests. I look forward to learning from you as we work together to meet the global challenge of climate change.
We in the United States were tremendously pleased with the agreement reached in Paris last December under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. By the year 2025, we are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.
This is an ambitious goal. It will require wise stewardship of our soils, our agricultural lands, and our forests. In April of last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a plan to help farmers … ranchers … forest landowners reduce emissions and enhance carbon sequestration. By 2025, this plan will cut 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. That will have the same effect as removing 25 million cars from the road each year.
This plan emphasizes the importance of forests and forestry. America’s forests currently absorb up to 14 percent of the carbon dioxide that our citizens emit each year. We need to protect our forests’ ability to sequester carbon.
Yet our forests are facing some of the greatest challenges in history. In California alone, we have 66 million dead trees due to extreme drought and epidemic insect outbreaks. Years of fire suppression and fuel buildups, along with the hot, dry conditions that come with climate change, are causing immense wildfires. These fires release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, sterilize soils, and severely hamper carbon sequestration.
Restoration is the key to meeting these challenges. By removing excess fuels and restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forests, we can reduce the likelihood of extreme wildfire. In the United States, tens of millions of hectares of forests and grasslands need restoration, but restoration is expensive. We have to find ways to leverage scarce resources.
One way to generate resources for restoration is to develop markets for wood. Putting wood to good use is also a key strategy for climate mitigation, because wood simultaneously stores carbon and replaces more carbon-intensive materials. Lumber is 8 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than cement for example —and 21 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than steel.
Many of the materials we remove to help restore forests have little or no commercial value, so we are finding new uses for small-diameter materials. For example, we are using low-value wood for cross-laminated timber. This technology creates a stable and structurally sound panel that can be used to build floors, walls, ceilings, and more in buildings up to 10 stories high.
To support the use of green building material, we created the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. Competition winners have received grants to help fund tall wood demonstration projects in New York and Portland, Oregon. We also support the international WoodWorks program to raise awareness among architects and engineers of the benefits of wood as a building material. WoodWorks projects in the United States have sequestered over 70,000 metric tons of carbon and avoided over 150,000 metric tons in emissions. At the U.S. Forest Service, we also practice what we preach by using wood in our own buildings and facilities.
We are also developing new ways of utilizing excess woody biomass for energy production. Wood-to-energy offsets fossil fuel emissions and does not conflict with food production like corn-based ethanol does. Wood-to-energy can heat individual homes and can also support plants that can generate up to 40 megawatts of power. The U.S. Forest Service has been working on providing a reliable and predictable supply of biomass for potential investors.
In urban areas, we are working through partnerships to plant trees. For example, the Energy Saving Trees program, led by our Arbor Day Foundation partners, has worked across 27 states and the District of Columbia to engage utility companies, retail organizations, state and local governments, and private homeowners. The trees that they have planted have cooled cities, reduced energy consumption and costs, and sequestered almost 300,000 metric tons of carbon. And we are striving to expand our urban forests even more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan calls for 100,000 additional urban trees.
The U.S. Forest Service is also creating institutional frameworks for using resources wisely and strategically in an era of climate change. In 2012, we adopted a landmark forest planning rule — the first such rule in a generation — to guide management of the 77 million hectares of national forests and grasslands. As units revise their land management plans, they evaluate climate stressors and monitor impacts on forest health. An annual climate change scorecard tracks each unit’s progress in tackling climate change on four fronts: organizational capacity, public engagement, adaptation, and mitigation.
The U.S. Forest Service also works with state, private, tribal, and other partners to help them adapt to climate change. For example, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona is a 10-year project to restore about 120,000 hectares of overgrown ponderosa pine on four national forests. In 2010, we began restoring and opening up the forests by removing some of the vegetation and bringing fire back to the land. Open ponderosa pine is better adapted to the stresses and disturbances associated with climate change, including drought and wildland fire.
To get the right information into the right hands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a network of climate hubs to deliver science-based, regionally targeted information to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. Each climate hub offers profiles of regional greenhouse gas emissions, detailed vulnerability assessments, and adaptation strategies. This information helps land managers make climate-informed decisions.
In closing, the United States is making progress towards meeting our goals for reducing greenhouse gases. But much work remains. Climate change is a huge challenge; meeting it will take bold and ambitious action.
So we in the United States want to learn about other approaches around the world. Only by sharing the best and the brightest ideas from across the globe can we successfully tackle the challenge of climate change.