How America Is Making Tree Equity a Climate Solution for Cities

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

After the hottest summer in recorded history, protecting our communities from extreme heat has rocketed to the top of the to-do list for policy makers and the public alike. Heat is the leading cause of death from extreme weather in the United States, with research led by Duke University projecting that climate change could increase this to nearly 100,000 heat-related deaths per year by 2100.

Here’s the challenge: if we try to simply air condition our way to safety, we will create a health equity divide between those who can afford cooling and those who can’t. We will also worsen climate change by dramatically increasing energy use that leads to fossil fuel emissions—at least until we have a carbon-free grid to run those humming air conditioners. Then there is the waste heat that air conditioners emit into cities—they protect those inside while making it hotter and more dangerous outside.

Make no mistake, heat resilient homes and air conditioning must be part of the solution. But we urgently need a complementary form of cooling that can be widely and equitably deployed, and one that doesn’t increase greenhouse gas emissions. The answer is right in front of us: trees.

A tree can cool the area underneath it by as much as 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and studies have found trees can reduce cooling load in a home by more than 50 percent when placed in the right locations. That saves lives, energy use, and a lot of money for homeowners. The climate math gets even better when you realize that trees in U.S. cities and towns today collectively sequester nearly 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s equivalent to emissions from nearly 30 million passenger vehicles. 

This urgently needed potential for carbon negative cooling is why cities across America and around the world are finally investing in urban tree cover, from famously hot cities getting hotter such as Phoenix to famously cool cities that are rapidly heating up, such as Seattle and Boston. Global leaders in this natural cooling movement include Paris, Freetown, and Medellin

Seeing this movement swelling across America, Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration made a bold decision to include a world-leading $1.5 billion for urban trees in the Inflation Reduction Act, delivered through the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program. While some vocal critics challenged and even lampooned the notion that urban trees could merit such significant investment, the architects of this legislation stayed the course based on their understanding of the huge gains for public health and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Simply securing this unprecedented commitment to urban trees would alone be cause for hope. But it is important to appreciate how the architects and implementers of this visionary investment, now rolling out across America, have gone three vital steps farther to get our country’s deployment of urban trees right in ways that should inform such efforts around the world.

Laser Focus on Tree Equity

The new funding is being explicitly focused to address a systemic lack of tree cover in lower income neighborhoods and communities of color that makes these parts of our cities hotter and more polluted. This is imperative when you consider that the additional exposure to heat and air pollution caused by lack of trees is particularly threatening for people who already have greater vulnerabilities such as a home without air conditioning or pre-existing health conditions.

American Forests’ Tree Equity Score shows why these funds must be focused through an equity lens. This data-driven analysis of every urban neighborhood across America found that lowest income neighborhoods have on average 26 percent less tree cover and are 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, while neighborhoods with the highest concentration of people of color—regardless of income—have on average 38 percent less tree cover and are 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. You can view the Tree Equity Score data for free online and explore more specific results for your city and neighborhoods.

Supporting Holistic Urban Forestry

It is also commendable that this new funding is being made available to support urban forestry actions that go beyond planting trees. Planting trees in the neighborhoods that lack them is unquestionably essential to urban tree equity, and the funding will support this work at an unprecedented level along with innovative ways to accelerate planting progress and reduce costs, such as building urban tree nurseries on vacant lots.

But providing healthy, resilient, and sustained tree cover in priority neighborhoods will also require other aspects of urban forestry, such watering and pruning trees, clearing invasive vines, protecting trees via enhanced municipal regulations and incentives, and urban wood programs that turn culled wood into long-lived wood products instead of sending that material to a landfill. It makes all the difference that this new funding can be used to cover these kinds of urban forestry actions.

Turning Trees into Jobs

The third key element is a commitment to leverage these funds into economic opportunity for those facing the highest barriers. One study led by Key-Log Economics found 25.7 direct, indirect and induced jobs for every $1 million invested in urban forestry, which demonstrates the scale of this opportunity. That is why the new funds are being used to support diverse forms of workforce development in the disadvantaged communities where this work will be taking place, building career pathways into employment opportunities with municipal agencies, tree care companies, and non-profits while also catalyzing new small business start-ups.

One leading effort that will be aided by $13 million of the new federal funding, the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership, is showing the way with a 5-year goal to plant 75,000 trees and create 300 jobs. A majority of the new trainees who have joined the Partnership’s workforce program are persons coming out of incarceration, demonstrating the potential of this investment to remove barriers and change lives when targeted the right way. 

The fantastic news is that the U.S. Forest Service has already delivered $1.3 billion of this funding to the field though a combination of block grant allocations to states and nationally competitive grants. The biggest mobilization of these funds just occurred in September, when the agency awarded $1 billion of the new funding through 385 grants that will touch all 50 states and engage a diverse cross-section of cities and towns, frontline community organizations, larger non-profits, youth and faith actors, and educational institutions.   

This world-leading mobilization of urban trees to save lives and our climate should be a source of hope. Further, because this work will bring the benefits of tree equity to so many people and places across America, it can help foster the broader societal buy-in we need to propel the climate movement to ultimate success.

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