Some of the surest filters of carbon in the atmosphere are all around us, yet as a new report details, we are intent on destroying them.
Trees that grow in neighborhoods and parks, and most especially forests, actively capture the carbon dioxide created by cars, livestock, industry and fires, which in turn contributes to global warming. Just as we become more desperate for these natural sponges to do their work, researchers at Clark University in Worcester find that all of New England’s states, as well as New York, are losing forests at a quickening rate.
In Massachusetts, the state nets 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in a given year when one considers more than 5,100 acres of forest felled. Most of that CO2 gets created when trees are cut down, though 20% is due to the lost capacity of nature’s carbon filters. When the trees are removed, nothing is left to soak up the ambient carbon dioxide.
According to the report, the carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere now due to the disturbance of Massachusetts’ forests is more than the 1.25 million metric tons pushed into the atmosphere in any given year during the 1990s.
It comes as no surprise that Massachusetts, with the density of Greater Boston, leads New England as a net producer of CO2 from lost forests. By contrast, New Hampshire is responsible for putting 710,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a given year for the same reason.
It also comes as no surprise that our western neighbor creates even more greenhouse gases from lost trees — a net increase of more than 2.1 million metric tons of CO2 each year in New York state, attributable to the loss of nearly 8,000 acres of forest.
The amount of carbon washed back into the atmosphere, or not filtered from it, is also growing there, at about 1.4% more per year in the 2000s than during the previous decade, according to the report. In Massachusetts, the increase is nearly 5% from one decade to the next.
Authors of the study, which was reported this week by State House News Service, note the importance of “natural climate solutions” to reducing carbon levels. Green energy and reduced emissions from hybrid and electric cars won’t get us to the goal of net-zero emissions in 2050 that the state aims to hit. We’ll also need the benefit of “protecting, restoring and better managing forests, grasslands, farms and wetlands to reduce and remove carbon emissions and safeguard the climate system,” the authors write.
In fact, the state plans up to 15% of overall carbon reduction will come from natural sources or technology that removes carbon from the atmosphere as part of its net-zero strategy, State House News reports.
Again, pumping less CO2 into the air is critically important. At this point, we must actively pull it out of the atmosphere as well.
Losing thousands of acres of forest every year not only isn’t helping, it’s pushing the state in the opposite direction. There could be no better illustration of the importance of conservation programs such as the Community Preservation Act, or of smart growth strategies that look to encourage housing while protecting open, forested space.
In a nod to this, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration wrote in support of the Clark researchers’ efforts, explaining in a letter that their work to understand the effect of disturbed forests will help guide programs meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As alarming as it is to learn that we’re headed in the wrong direction from where we need be going as a state and region, there’s some solace in knowing state officials are listening. The next test will be what they do to stanch the loss of our forests.