Taking it to the States: Linking Sprawl, Land Use and Forest Conversion to Climate ChangeJune 24, 2010
If Google Earth had been around in the 18th century, the green surface of the United States would have looked dramatically different.
There would have been about a
third more of it.
Deforestation here and abroad is responsible for a staggering 40 percent of the excess man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today. The forests that remain now serve as a critical climate defense, safely absorbing and storing greenhouse gases (GHG) that fuel climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Which is one key reason why the Pacific Forest Trust and so many others are urgently working to stem the tide of forest loss now.
In addition to our efforts at the federal level, PFT is working in several states to mitigate emissions from forest loss by leveraging existing state environmental regulations. In states where such environmental quality laws don't exist or where regulators need additional legal directives to act, we're also supporting legislation that recognizes and mitigates the environmental and climate impacts of development and associated forest loss in particular.
Results of our work ultimately will lead to state-level requirements for restoring or planting new forests to compensate for land that has been converted or developed, thus mitigating for the emissions created by forest loss.
Our strategy is rooted in the 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases are pollutants that should be regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that carbon dioxide (CO2) and five other gases constitute pollutants that must be further restricted.
While the federal agency considers national approaches to regulating emissions, PFT is working with state-level environmental regulators who are similarly charged with reducing pollution, but who have more direct control over state land use.
PFT pioneered a "no net loss" approach to conserving the climate benefits of forests in the Golden State. In 2008 we successfully advocated for inclusion of forest loss mitigation language in the implementation plan for the state's landmark climate legislation, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (aka AB 32). The plan calls for mitigation of emissions created by forest loss, identifying the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as a powerful tool for evaluating and mitigating the climate impacts of forest loss.
Throughout 2009 we worked with Californiaâ€™s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), developing an update to regulations that implement CEQA, generally known as the CEQA guidelines. We were successful in adding new provisions to the guidelines, clarifying that proposed projects should quantify and evaluate the climate impacts of converting forestland.
The CEQA guidelines instruct project proponents on how to implement the law, but there is still a large amount of "grey area" around how forest loss will be mitigated. To provide a clearer path for how to compensate for forest loss, we have been working with state lawmakers like Sen. Fran Pavely, author of SB 144. Her bill would create a self-sustaining program requiring those who are converting forests to assist with mitigation, by creating a funding source for reforestation and forest conservation. This funding source helps compensate for the lost forestland, and also provides a new source of income for landowners who are participating in the program to provide the mitigation.
PFT recently celebrated a key success with our mitigation approach in Massachusetts, where our policy staff has advocated for large-scale development projects to measure, report and mitigate the greenhouse gas impacts of converting forests to other uses under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA).
In March, PFT submitted detailed comments on the MEPA greenhouse gas policy, recommending its revision to address forest-based emissions. The revision we proposed would represent an important step towards achieving the state's climate goals under the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008, and could fundamentally change the economic forces that drive forest loss--by making it more economically feasible to keep land in forest than convert it to development.
May brought a major victory in Massachusetts, when the MEPA office submitted its final greenhouse gas policy revision. In a significant departure from previous versions, it now explicitly requires that large land conversions of 50 acres of more quantify the resulting GHG emissions. In addition, such developers must undertake appropriate mitigation activities for reducing those emissions, such as reforestation or afforestation in other areas.
This reflect a significant policy change in that the state is acknowledging emissions from land conversion are important and require mitigation.
In the Pacific Northwest we've been expanding educational outreach on the climate impact of forest conversion as members of an advisory group to the Department of Ecology. The state agency is developing guidelines for lead agencies on how to incorporate climate change impacts into environmental analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). In April, we submitted comments on a review draft of the SEPA guidelines in which we recommended language that requires reporting of emissions as well as reduction of forests' capacity to absorb and store carbon. We also provided information on how to measure CO2 emissions from forest loss in a development context and recommended mechanisms for decreasing these impacts up front as well as mitigating remaining emissions and loss of forest sink capacity.
The draft SEPA guidelines can be found on the Washington Department of Ecology's website. The public can review and comment on the guidelines; now is the time to write in and speak out. PFT's public comments can serve as a reference for those who want to urge the agency to conserve the climate benefits of forests.
As in California, SEPA does not contain a legal mandate to mitigate for climate impacts of forest conversion. So we also are working with several partners to develop and pass legislation that requires land use conversion to both account for and mitigate emissions from forest loss. Such legislation, combined with other land use planning and transportation initiatives, can be a powerful tool for smart growth that reduces sprawl and loss of working farms and forest lands.
Maryland and New York
PFT has been active in Maryland and New York as well. Our east coast staff submitted comments to the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation on ways to enhance their existing greenhouse gas policy under its State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR). We've also provided the state with specific guidance on accounting for emissions from forest loss, as well as recommendations for mitigating the effects of forest loss through forest conservation and stewardship techniques.
In 2009 Maryland's legislature also responded to the call for conserving the climate benefits of forests, passing the No Net Loss of Forest Policy (SB 666). SB 666 directs the state's Department of Natural Resources to work with forest stakeholder groups to define no net loss of forest goals and develop proposals for getting there, which must be submitted to the state legislature by Dec. 1, 2011. PFT supported SB 666 and the local Task Force that helped draft it, making the connection between land use and climate implications that could be linked to a broader effort to reduce Maryland's GHG emissions while maintaining the carbon sequestration capacity of its forests.
Our state and regional work to prevent forest loss and its associated climate benefits complements our national work to accomplish the same goals -- conserving U.S. forests and the many benefits they provide -- at the federal level. The Pacific Forest Trust is advising national lawmakers as they grapple with comprehensive energy and climate legislation that includes land conservation incentives as part of a larger suite of solutions. Learn more about our work at the federal level in our blog or read our coalition letter.