Here's a simple question for our climate negotiators in Copenhagen: As we seek to highlight the need to preserve the carbon in the vast but shrinking forests in other countries, how are we doing here at home?
Secretary Salazar addressed Copenhagen on Thursday and noted that U.S. scientists have now calculated that plants and soils in the lower 48 states of the U.S. store almost 90 billion metric tons of carbon — or the equivalent of around 50 years of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions at current levels. All together, terrestrial ecosystems in the U.S. are soaking up carbon equivalent to about 30% of U.S. fossil fuel CO2 emissions.
Meanwhile, as the Secretary also acknowledged, we are losing each year the equivalent of the State of Connecticut — 3 million acres — to development.
The 2007 climate conference in Bali took an important step forward with the recognition by all nations of the stake they have in reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. But if protecting carbon stored in the forest makes sense in the tropics, what of the extensive carbon stores in more temperate nations?
In fact, according to a new report from the Canadian Boreal Initiative, North America contains in its vast boreal forests nearly twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests. The temperate rainforests of the United States, with plentiful moisture and cool temperatures, tremendous amounts of carbon — 470 metric tons per acre. Our publicly-owned forests in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska are a virtual Fort Knox of carbon.
In Copenhagen, the United States is being challenged to lead by example across a range of climate-related strategies, from emissions reductions to natural resources adaptation techniques to clean tech alternatives. The more recent focus on forest policy is now giving Secretary Salazar, Secretary Vilsack and others a reason to develop a new forward-looking forest policy in the United States. Our carbon-rich forests of the United States have always been precious for a host of reasons, but their protection has always been precarious. Now is the time to set an example by protecting our most high-value carbon stores from development and conversion pressures.
This blog also appears on NationalJournal.com Copenhagen Insider.
photo: Old growth forest in Oregon. Photo by KS Wild.