Trees Are the Secret Weapon of America’s Historic Climate Bill

7 minute read
Daley is President and CEO of American Forests and a leader of the U.S. chapter of

The Inflation Reduction Act is a tectonic shift for America. At a moment of true peril, this legislation pushes aside decades of political paralysis to choose climate action, and the financial stimuli it provides for diverse climate solutions will advance them farther and faster than ever before. While you probably have already heard how this will change the game for clean energy, you might not know the IRA will also power up the world’s oldest climate-fighting technology—nature.

There are two good reasons that lawmakers put nature in this historic legislation. The first is the urgent need for carbon removal, which is anything that can actually pull carbon out of the air to diminish past emissions. Nature is our only existing tool to do this at scale, despite laudable efforts to develop new human-built tools and technologies.

Leading studies have found that nature-based climate solutions, from increasing carbon capture in agriculture soils to large scale reforestation, have potential to provide roughly one-third of needed carbon emissions reductions to stay under safe climate change thresholds.

Trees and forests are the key to natural carbon removal, whether on our city streets, farms, or in our national forests. An average tree in the U.S. will capture about 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. This adds up. Together trees and forests in the U.S. currently capture and store 17 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions annually.

But this is just a starting point. Research led by The Nature Conservancy has found potential to increase tree-based carbon capture across America by nearly half if we reforest 133 million acres of ecologically suitable land, enough to grow more than 60 billion trees. We can further increase forest carbon gains by protecting forests from development and adopting climate-smart forestry practices, such as strategically thinning forests to promote more vigorous growth and reduce forest carbon losses to mortality and wildfire. In such cases, managing for a less dense forest of the right tree species will lead to a healthier and more resilient forest that captures more carbon over the long-term.

These carbon benefits alone would justify investment in nature-based climate solutions, but fighting climate change with nature is also valued for a second reason—investing in nature can solve many problems at once.

Just consider that our climate crisis is fueling a public health crisis with extreme heat. Extreme heat is our number one weather-related cause of death, and U.S. heat related deaths are expected to rise to nearly 100,000 annually by end of century due to climate change. Fortunately those wonderful carbon capture devices—trees—are also our most powerful natural solution for heat, with ability to cool the area beneath them more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why cities such as Phoenix, Detroit, and Boston have launched initiatives to spread equitable tree canopy citywide as a way to save lives and energy while naturally capturing more carbon emissions.

Also consider that stemming our global biodiversity crisis will rely on forests, which house more than 80 percent of terrestrial wildlife species. Across America, climate-smart reforestation initiatives are targeting landscapes such as the Rio Grande Valley and Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley to replant defunct agricultural lands back into carbon-hungry native forests that also provide habitat for federally-listed threatened and endangered species. We can slow climate change and save species with the right forest investments.

This powerful combination of public benefits explains why lawmakers put roughly $30 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for nature-based climate solutions. This includes:

  • Urban Trees: $1.5 Billion in grants through the U.S. Forest Service to help cities and their partners to plant and protect urban trees, focused on neighborhoods where equitable tree cover can help save lives from extreme heat and air pollution. This will be leveraged by $1.8 Billion for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $3 Billion for U.S. Department of Transportation to invest in neighborhood heat resilience including trees, cool paving, community preparedness, and other heat interventions.
  • Climate-Smart Forestry: $1.25 Billion through U.S. Forest Service grants and incentives to help private landowners permanently protect forestland from development and adopt climate-smart forestry practices. $3 billion for the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior to fund urgently needed forestry treatments that will restore ecosystem health and increase wildfire resilience on national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and conservation areas. This includes special actions to protect old growth forests, such as the Giant Sequoia groves in California that are endangered by wildfire.
  • Climate-Smart Agriculture and Agroforestry: $20 Billion through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grants and incentives to help farmers, ranchers and other agricultural landowners to adopt practices that protect and increase carbon in soils and reduce emissions from agricultural operations. Importantly, this will include billions of dollars for tree-focused practices on agricultural lands, such as silvopasture (adding trees to grazing lands) and planting trees to buffer streams and create windbreaks.
  • There’s just one catch to this hopeful story—these dollars represent potential, but do not yet guarantee progress. Substantial challenges lie ahead to implement these funds with the pace, scale, and climate focus that lawmakers intended, and success will demand two major commitments from the federal government.

    The first is willingness to embrace public-private partnership in new ways. Federal agencies are not built to quickly scale up ten-fold in their activities, as some of this new funding will require. Instead of simply hiring more federal employees and working through traditional program channels, agencies have the opportunity to use credible, carefully vetted private sector partners to provide supplemental in-kind staff support, administer block grants, and more. These private sector partners come with millions in private matching funds to help power this collaboration, enabling federal dollars to go even farther.

    The second needed commitment is to match expenditure to the climate goals of the legislation. In the field of forestry, this means integrating climate science to assure the places we are selecting to work and forestry practices we are funding are truly the most impactful for carbon capture and long-term resilience. For example, agencies can identify forest types with unusually high carbon potential that could be unlocked by prompting a change in the customary forestry used in that region. Also, they can identify where forests are most immediately at risk of catastrophic carbon loss due to climate impacts—such as intensive wildfire—that could be averted by investing in the right forestry treatments.

    This will require a commitment to ramp up agencies’ applied science, including forest carbon data and analysis, and push out the needed information regarding where to work and what climate-smart forestry actions are needed to private landowners and public land managers alike. The USDA Climate Hubs, which were established to draw together all of USDA’s climate expertise and focus it on real world applications, give the federal government a ready pathway to provide this support—and a model hat can be replicated within other parts of the federal government.

    At this moment of profound climate potential, we must quickly move from justified celebration to the long game of implementation. If we stick with it and get these details right, the Inflation Reduction Act will power natural climate solutions with a rigor, speed, and scale never seen before.

    Note: TIME’s owners and co-chairs Marc and Lynne Benioff are among American Forests’ philanthropic supporters.

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