Why Greenhouse Gas Inventories Are Important for Natural and Working Lands — and How to Fix Them

This piece was jointly authored by Alex Rudee with the World Resources Institute and Jenn Phillips with the U.S. Climate Alliance and was originally published by the World Resources Institute.

Photo Credit: USDA NRCS Montana/Flickr

Inventories of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are a critical tool in the fight against climate change. GHG inventories allow entities like countries, states, cities and businesses to measure how much progress they are making toward meeting emissions-reduction targets, such as those set under the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate policies at all levels of government are also informed by data in GHG inventories. 

The U.S. Climate Alliance has facilitated ambitious state-level action on climate change since 2017, when the United States government announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. To support states’ technical needs in building and implementing these climate action plans — including by developing robust GHG inventories — the U.S. Climate Alliance has convened an “Impact Partnership” of nonprofit organizations with relevant expertise, including WRI. Through that partnership, WRI and the U.S. Climate Alliance have published a guide for states to develop and improve their GHG inventories with an eye toward one particular sector that has often been shortchanged: natural and working lands (NWL). But to understand why a state-level guide specific to land-based GHG inventories is needed, it’s important to first know what a GHG inventory is, why inventories are produced and how they are created.

Inventory Basics: What, Why and How

1.    What is a GHG inventory?

An inventory accounts for all human-caused emissions and removals of GHGs associated with a specific entity. The inventory essentially acts as a climate change balance sheet, tracking the total volume of GHG emitted from sources like fossil fuel consumption and agricultural production alongside the volume of GHG removed by sequestration in plants and soils or through technological means. Good inventories transparently report their data sources and methodologies so the calculations and assumptions that underlie GHG estimates are clear. Typically, entities produce GHG inventories annually or on some other regular schedule to monitor changes in their GHG emissions and removals over time.

2.    Why produce a GHG inventory?

As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Measuring GHG emissions and removals through GHG inventories is therefore a necessary first step to manage our collective carbon footprint. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has required participating nations, including the United States, to produce and submit annual GHG inventories since 1997 to measure progress toward international climate goals. In more recent years, many U.S. states have voluntarily published their own GHG inventories to inform development of state climate action plans and provide accountability for their emissions reduction goals.

With the U.S. government and the U.S. Climate Alliance’s recent commitment to reduce collective net GHG emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve overall net-zero GHG emissions no later than 2050, the accuracy and comprehensiveness of these inventories has never been more paramount. Achieving net-zero at both the federal and state levels will require concerted action — not only to reduce emissions throughout the economy, but also to increase carbon removals, including the management of natural and working lands. 

NWL, which include forests, croplands, grasslands, wetlands and urban trees and soils, make up the only sector in the U.S. that removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits, reducing total U.S. emissions by nearly 800 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, or about 12% of U.S. gross emissions. This increase in land-based carbon storage, which overwhelmingly comes from forest growth, offsets the 10% of gross U.S. emissions from agricultural production. Emissions from agricultural production, which includes soil fertilization, manure management, enteric fermentation and other sources related to crop and livestock cultivation, are typically considered separately from NWL in GHG inventories.

With additional investment in conservation, restoration and land management, the amount of carbon removed by NWL in the U.S. can grow significantly, offsetting a greater portion of U.S. gross emissions and moving the U.S. closer to meeting its ambitious GHG reduction targets.

3.    How are Natural and Working Lands included in GHG inventories?

Unlike GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion, which are easily tracked through publicly reported energy use data, emissions and removals from NWL are more difficult to measure. These emissions and removals are occurring constantly over millions of acres due to farming and forestry operations alongside natural ecosystem carbon cycles, making universal monitoring very challenging. In many cases, scientists are also still refining our understanding of how land management practices like forest restoration or conservation tillage impact GHG flows in those environments. Therefore, GHG inventories typically rely on sample data to estimate the area of NWL within certain classifications and GHG models or approximate “emission factors” to estimate GHG emissions and removals as a function of area. 

GHG inventories typically rely on sample-based measurements to estimate carbon sequestration in forests. Photo by Lance Cheung for Forest Service, USDA/Flickr.

These challenges illustrate why estimates of land-based emissions and removals in GHG inventories are typically much more uncertain than energy emissions. Contributors to the uncertainty include:

  • Timeliness of data inputs (how long ago data were collected).
  • Spatial and temporal resolution of inventory data (how finely data can be mapped over space and time).
  • Gaps in inventory coverage (which sources of emissions and removals are omitted).
  • Error in GHG models and emission factors (how accurately the calculations mirror real-world emissions and removals).

These challenges are compounded at the state level, where most states lack the resources to develop their own inventories and have had to depend on federal data and tools with significant limitations. Many states, for example, use the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) State Inventory Tool (SIT), which applies the same methods and data sources used for EPA’s National GHG Inventory at the state level. However, much of the data on land-based emissions and removals used in the National Inventory is not available at the state level, so SIT has relied on older and less accurate data to fill gaps. SIT also does not publish measures of uncertainty. For these reasons, many states have opted to leave NWL out of their GHG inventories entirely, while others that do include SIT estimates for that sector have cautioned against relying on them for goal-setting or policymaking purposes.

How to Improve GHG Inventories for Natural and Working Lands

Fortunately, a mix of current and emerging datasets and technologies can help states improve their estimates of GHG emissions and removals from NWL. These inventory improvement options have the potential to not only address specific limitations of SIT, but could also provide even more accurate and granular information than the National Inventory. More accurate, more transparent and higher resolution estimates of NWL emissions and removals can help state governments set robust climate targets specifically for NWL in addition to measuring progress toward existing goals, informing new climate policies and underlying plans for climate-smart land management.

Most options for states to improve the NWL data in their inventories follow one or both of two strategies. Either the state can collect new field measurement data, for example by adding to the Forest Service’s network of forest inventory plots or by measuring carbon in soil samples; or the state can use remote sensing tools like LiDAR and satellite imagery to complement existing data from field measurements. 

All inventory improvements come with costs, so states will need to prioritize improvements based on their potential impact, policy relevance and feasibility. WRI’s Guide to NWL Inventory Improvements walks states through available options for improving inventory data for each land use type included in a NWL inventory along with factors to consider in deciding where to prioritize limited state resources.

Several U.S. states have already begun to implement innovations in their NWL inventories. In March 2021, Maryland committed to replace forest data from SIT with a new inventory method that uses high-resolution LiDAR and satellite imagery to model forest carbon over time, based on research conducted by the University of Maryland and WRI under a grant from the U.S. Climate Alliance. Across the country, California, Oregon and Washington have all worked with the Forest Service to develop state-specific estimates of carbon in wood products, allowing them to update the decades-old data in SIT. Even farther west, Hawai’i partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to create its first NWL inventory, as most of the federal datasets that underlie SIT did not include data for Hawai’i.

These are just a few of the exciting innovations states are pursuing to improve their inventories. But many other states lack the resources or capacity to take on their own improvement projects and the need for more national coordination and consistent, quality GHG estimation tools and NWL datasets that can be utilized by every state remains. Therefore, it’s clear that federal investment is paramount. Recent federal efforts, like the publication of new Forest Service research in 2020 that quantified forest carbon emissions and removals at the state level, help move the ball forward — but there is still much room for improvement.

3 Ways the Federal Government Can Help Improve State Inventories

The Guide to NWL Inventory Improvements identified three key needs across states, spanning the key NWL systems of forests, agricultural soils and wetlands, where the federal government would be best positioned to lead inventory improvements. With President Biden restoring the United States to a leadership role on climate action hours after becoming president, these opportunities offer common sense steps to advance the role of NWL in climate action plans at all levels of government.

1. Develop a national remote sensing-based forest and land use inventory.

The National GHG Inventory and SIT rely on data from the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program (FIA), which is among the most comprehensive forest monitoring systems in the world, but was not designed to meet current demands for precise carbon data at a variety of scales. Using federal data products like Landsat and GEDI, the federal government could complement FIA with remote sensing data to map and model carbon emissions and removals across the landscape, reducing uncertainty in forest carbon estimates. 

2. Monitor soil carbon through national field networks.

Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils is currently modeled, not measured, to calculate GHG estimates in the National Inventory and SIT, leading to uncertainty of over 1,000% nationally for some soil carbon removal estimates. Regular, systematic collection of soil carbon field measurements through the federal National Resources Inventory (NRI) could help refine models and reduce this uncertainty dramatically. The National Academies of Sciences has estimated the cost of this endeavor at just $5 million per year.

3. Develop a national spatial inventory of GHG emissions in wetlands.

Wetlands are among the least-understood contributors to GHG emissions from NWL. No consistent data on wetland GHG emissions exist at the state level, and even the National Inventory does not account for GHG emissions from most terrestrial, or freshwater, wetlands. The federal government could improve this understanding by creating a high-resolution spatial dataset to monitor changes in wetland extent, vegetation and management, incorporating existing data from the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) and National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) where relevant, and pairing it with a network of field plots to derive regionally-specific emission factors for different wetland types. 

Helping States Lead the Way on GHG Inventories for Natural and Working Lands

For the last four years, states have been forging ahead with climate action even as the federal government rolled back environmental regulations and withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. States in the U.S. Climate Alliance have led the way in linking land management to climate change mitigation through the NWL Challenge, but they need better data and inventory methods in order to act boldly and effectively. Some states have jumped out ahead by experimenting with new methods for carbon monitoring in NWL, but federal action has the unique ability to “lift all boats” when it comes to data quality and consistency. As it now re-engages on climate change at home and abroad, the federal government has an opportunity to put wind under the wings of state leadership by investing in the tools they need to monitor and manage land for a climate-friendly future.

Alex Rudee is a Manager for U.S. Natural Climate Solutions at World Resources Institute. Jenn Phillips is a Senior Policy Advisor for Natural and Working Lands and Resilience at U.S. Climate Alliance. Both Alex and Jenn serve on the U.S. Nature4Climate steering committee.

Natural Climate Solutions: A Win-Win Solution for Our Environment and Our Economy

Coastal and oyster restoration along the coast of Rhode Island Photo Credit: TNC

There is growing recognition in the United States that the actions required to spare us from the worst impacts of climate change can also serve as a powerful engine for job creation and economic recovery. The economic benefits of decarbonizing our energy and transportation sectors are relatively clear – large-scale efforts to install wind turbines and solar arrays, build electric vehicle charging stations and cap leaking gas wells will requires a large workforce, potentially creating employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Natural Climate Solutions — conservation, restoration and improved land management strategies that remove carbon dioxide from the air – can also play a large role in tackling climate change. Indeed, natural and working lands have the potential to reduce overall emissions in the United States by up to 30 percent. Like other climate solutions, these actions can also serve as a powerful mechanism for restoring our economy by creating jobs, generating new sources of income for farm and forest owners and managers, and providing a wide range of economic benefits to underserved and frontline communities across America.

The Blaney family farm in Albany, Ohio. Photo Credit: Alex Snyder/TNC

In addition to the direct economic benefits of Natural Climate Solutions, they provide significant indirect economic benefits by also protecting water quality, improving soil health, increasing resilience to floods and drought and providing crucial habitat for wildlife. When one considers the significant benefits that Natural Climate Solutions provide to people and nature, it is clear that they are a win-win solution for our environment and our economy.

The U.S. Nature4Climate coalition has reviewed reports, case studies, and research about the economic value of Nature Climate Solutions. We hope the collective weight of this information will increase public awareness of the numerous benefits of Natural Climate Solutions, elevating these solutions as an integral part of the overall strategy to combat climate change and restore our economy. Over the next month, U.S. Nature4Climate and our coalition partners will highlight the potential of Natural Climate Solutions to help spur an equitable and robust economic recovery in the United States.

Our campaign is themed around the following facts:

  • Investment in Natural Climate Solutions creates jobs: Planting trees in both rural and urban areas helps create good new jobs while pulling carbon out of the air; these projects also help stimulate the outdoor recreation economy. For example, investing $4-4.5 billion dollars in tree planting can create up to 150,000 jobs. Environmental restoration programs focused on restoring coastal, forest and grassland ecosystems can create up to 40 jobs for each million dollars invested.  
  • Natural Climate Solutions can serve as a mechanism for advancing equity, particularly in urban communities:  Urban forestry programs are a particularly powerful force for reducing inequality in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.  Recent research indicates widespread inequality in tree cover between low-income and high-income neighborhoods. A program to plant 31.4 million urban trees a year can create nearly 230,000 new jobs. Urban trees can also reduce home energy costs up to 7%, while also reducing health care costs.
  • Natural Climate Solutions provide new sources of income for owners and managers of farms and forests:  Farmers and foresters across America want to be a part of the solution to climate change – and in many cases, already are.  Adoption of soil health practices have been proven to increase income and lower costs for farmers over time. Robust and credible carbon markets can also provide a new source of income for farmers and forest owners, while helping companies meet ambitious sustainability goals.

Please visit our new campaign page, www.usnature4climate.org/win-win, and the U.S. Nature4Climate blog to learn more about the powerful role Natural Climate Solutions can play in our economic recovery.

Nathan Henry is the Project Manager for U.S. Nature4Climate.

Healthy Salt Marshes Harbor Rich Biodiversity—and Help Fight Climate Change

New Jersey salt marsh. Photo Credit: Fishhawk_Flickr

Along temperate coasts, the effects of climate change—including sea-level rise, erosion, and more frequent and stronger storms—are threatening a vital habitat that offers one of the best natural defenses against those perils.

Salt marshes are low-lying ecosystems characterized by salt-tolerant shrubs, herbs, and grasses that not only protect coastal communities but also provide vital habitat for fish, birds, invertebrates, bivalves, and other wildlife. In the United States alone, up to 75% of commercially important marine species, including shrimp, crabs, and finfish, rely on this ecosystem. That rich biodiversity supports coastal communities and their businesses, from commercial and recreational fishing fleets to seafood markets and tourism outfitters.

Along with other coastal wetlands—namely mangroves and seagrass—salt marshes play a significant role in helping communities adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This habitat provides flood protection and shoreline stabilization by buffering coastal communities from the full impact of storms, which in many areas have become more frequent and intense.

In the U.S., coastal wetlands are estimated to provide the equivalent of $23.2 billion in storm damage protection per year.

Another Major Benefit: Blue Carbon

Photo Credit: Coreen Weilminster/Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Maryland

Marshes also have extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon in their underlying soil, and this carbon can remain stored for decades if it is undisturbed. In fact, the saturated soil found in marsh ecosystems can retain more carbon per acre than some terrestrial forests and is often referred to as blue carbon—that is, carbon captured and retained by ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Salt marshes are one of only three marine ecosystems—along with mangroves and seagrass—currently recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their measurable carbon benefits. And scientists and stakeholders alike note the “triple-win” effect that healthy, intact salt marshes convey by helping governments address climate change through mitigation, adaption, and resilience.

Salt marshes are threatened, however, by the very phenomena that they can help to alleviate. Experts estimate that 50% of salt marshes have been lost globally, with declines continuing because of climate change, coastal development, industrialization, and pollution.

But there is hope to reverse this trend. Governments and international bodies are pursuing concrete ways to protect and restore salt marshes and the benefits they provide, such as climate policy instruments like the Paris Agreement. Parties to the agreement may include efforts to protect and restore salt marshes in their domestic climate action plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Every party to the Paris Agreement was due to enhance its NDC in 2020 and will submit further revisions—each with increasing ambition—every five years.

In the U.S., salt marsh and other blue carbon habitats can be incorporated into state plans for using nature-based solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, known as natural and working lands strategies. By quantifying the amount of carbon stored in these habitats and then setting goals to protect and expand that storage through conservation and restoration, states can help to support broader efforts to mitigate climate impacts. In addition, states, in partnership with federal agencies, should advance regional, landscape-level strategies to help salt marshes better adapt to climate impacts.

Salt marshes are an important nature-based solution in the fight against climate change, with far-reaching benefits for communities, wildlife, and coastal economies. Protecting these vital habitats must be a policy priority—globally and at all levels of government—moving forward.

This blog post was originally published by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stacy Baez works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ coastal wetlands and coral reefs project, and Sylvia Troost works on Pew’s conserving marine life in the United States project.

Experienced Coalition Builders Represent Hunters and Anglers in the Fight for Natural Climate Solutions

Molalla River Ore, Photo Credit: Bob Wick/BLM

As an organization that was created specifically to find common ground and solve complicated conservation issues, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership knows a thing or two about the value of collaboration.

In the late 1990’s, though species-specific conservation groups had been successful at bringing fish and wildlife populations back from the brink, it seemed like we were fighting each other for the attention of decision-makers in Washington, D.C. Our late co-founder, Jim Range, recognized this and formed what was to become the TRCP to fill that gap.

Now, we are the largest conservation coalition in the country, carrying on Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy of safeguarding habitat and quintessentially American access to the outdoors.

Almost 20 years later, we are proud to forge new alliances within the U.S. Nature for Climate coalition, where the TRCP brings the collective voice of our 60 organizational partners, 100,000 individual advocates, and dozens of corporate partners to the fight for meaningful Natural Climate Solutions.

Our members may not look like the typical climate activists, but it would be a mistake to assume that American sportsmen and sportswomen are not engaged in this essential work. For one thing, we are on the front lines of climate change, witnessing firsthand the impacts on wildlife and habitat—from altered migration patterns to longer wildfire seasons. As temperatures spike, warming trout streams, we lose access to fishing opportunities. As invasive grasses consume the landscape, upland birds and other game lose critical forage. As summers lengthen, ticks take down big game animals before we get our shot in the fall.

Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

Hunter and angler participation is also critical to conservation funding in the U.S., where hunting and fishing license sales and excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, boat fuel, and other essential equipment go directly to state fish and wildlife management agencies. These dollars benefit all species, not just those that are pursued as game.

This is why the TRCP is focusing its efforts on advocating for Natural Climate Solutions—many are habitat improvements that hunters and anglers already want. Besides our participation in USN4C, we are a part of several climate-focused working groups and we lead our own 41-group effort within the hunting and fishing space.

There’s an additional layer of value in nature-based infrastructure solutions that can restore fish and wildlife habitat while storing or sequestering carbon. So we’re educating decision-makers and our members on the benefits of natural infrastructure across all of our campaigns.

There may be no better time to advance Natural Climate Solutions with these win-win propositions: The stresses of the pandemic have driven more Americans to find solace in—and appreciation for—the great outdoors, but our nation is also still in the midst of the economic fallout from COVID restrictions. We need bold investments in conservation, including Natural Climate Solutions, to put Americans back to work, just as we have in past economic crises.

The ripple effects of decisive action now will be felt by generations to come—those who, as Theodore Roosevelt famously said, are “still in the womb of time.” If we meet our goals, they will experience more abundant fish and wildlife habitat, cleaner air and water, and the protection of resilient coastlines and functional wetlands. It’s why we do what we do, as both a partner and a partnership.

To learn more about the TRCP’s mission, watch this video.

Christy Plumer is the chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a member of the USN4C Steering Committee.

Ambitious Climate Legislation in Massachusetts Sets the Bar for Other States

Bass Hole boardwalk in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Katherine Gendreau.

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Its impacts can be seen clearly as sea levels continue to rise, heat waves become more frequent and storms intensify. To help avoid some of the worst impacts yet to come, immediate action is needed to not only stop further greenhouse gas emissions, but also to remove the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is already in the air.

In March, Massachusetts passed An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy, a groundbreaking and ambitious law that sets a net zero emissions goal–the new global standard–and requires the Commonwealth to decarbonize our economy by decreasing our use of fossil fuels and harnessing nature to draw carbon from the air.

“The new law reflects Governor Charlie Baker’s and the state legislature’s recognition that climate change impacts are touching down in the Commonwealth’s communities today, and we need to address the causes and effects to protect our future,” says Steve Long, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Massachusetts. “Once again, Massachusetts policymakers have modeled bipartisan collaboration and leadership to address climate change that should serve as inspiration for policymakers on the national stage.”

The law also provides a robust toolkit of policies and strategies—such as requirements and incentives to reduce emissions from energy production, transportation, and buildings—and ensures accountability by setting goals for interim carbon emissions reductions between now and 2050.

TNC hosted a Natural Climate Solutions briefing for legislators at the Massachusetts State House in 2019. From left to right: Emily Myron, Laura Marx, State Representative Smitty Pignatelli, State Representative Bradley Jones, State Senator Bruce Tarr, Kurt Gaertner of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Steve Long. Photo Credit: Loren Dowd/TNC

TNC led the advocacy for the inclusion of Natural Climate Solutions in the legislation. As the bill moved through the Senate and House of Representatives, we heard bipartisan support for the benefits of Natural Climate Solutions. During Senate floor debate, Senator Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) said, “We will not achieve the reductions we need without carbon sequestration and storage. It is our Commonwealth that has the lungs of New England.” And House Minority Leader Brad Jones (R-North Reading) noted that, “A comprehensive, multi-faceted approach is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Using forests and other natural and working lands to promote carbon sequestration is one of the most effective ways for the state to achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.”  

Natural Climate Solutions are strategies that protect, restore, and better manage natural and working lands—such as forests, farms, and wetlands—to remove carbon from the air and store it long term. We believe this law is the first in the nation to require the state to set goals for both reducing emissions from and increasing sequestration by natural and working lands, and to create a plan to achieve those goals.

Northampton Tree. Photo Credit: Lauren Owens Lambert.

Massachusetts’ forests currently remove the equivalent of nearly five million metric tons of CO2 from the air each year, an amount equal to nearly seven percent of our carbon emissions. Natural Climate Solutions have the potential to remove an additional one to two million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year across the state—about the same amount of carbon as is emitted by 435,000 cars annually.

In addition to capturing carbon, implementing Natural Climate Solutions can bring communities many other benefits, as well. For example, protecting forests and wetlands helps clean our water and air and provides habitat for wildlife. Better managing farmland ensures healthy soils and can increase agricultural yields. And restoring wetlands and salt marshes helps reduce flood risks and enhances our fisheries. In urban areas, tree planting and creating green space can reduce the heat island effect, lower energy use in nearby buildings and reduce air pollution to improve public health.

As we move forward, it is also critical to ensure a just transition to a decarbonized economy and address the disproportionate impacts of climate change felt by underserved and overburdened communities. The new law includes important environmental justice provisions designed to enhance review of the health and cumulative impacts of projects proposed in communities with environmental justice populations and to ensure that residents have reasonable access and information to meaningfully engage in the public processes concerning those projects. TNC was proud to support environmental justice partners in advocating for these protections.

“The requirement in the new law that cumulative impacts be considered reflects the reality that the health and well-being of our communities and our environment are inextricably linked,” says Eugenia Gibbons, Massachusetts director of climate policy at Health Care Without Harm. “The environmental justice protections mark an important step towards ensuring that communities historically excluded from decision making that has left them burdened by environmental harm have reasonable access to information and an opportunity to engage meaningfully going forward.” 

At the same time TNC was advocating for the climate legislation, they led a working group on the state’s climate council to inform the science and policy recommendations for natural climate solutions in the Commonwealth’s 2030 Clean Energy and Climate Plan. The plan prioritizes the state’s action for the next ten years and will guide implementation of strategies to meet emissions reductions targets in the law. TNC collaborated with climate justice partners to jointly develop a policy framework and recommend Natural Climate Solutions strategies for equity and justice. 

Governor Baker signing Next-Generation Road Map legislation.

“The legislation signed by Governor Baker is supported by a comprehensive, science-based analysis with significant stakeholder input that took place over a two-year period, culminating with the Administration’s 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap and Clean Energy and Climate Plan,” says Kathleen Theoharides, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary for Massachusetts. “As we move toward implementing this nation-leading legislation, including important provisions around natural working lands and protecting our environmental justice communities, the Baker-Polito Administration remains committed to achieving our climate goals in an equitable manner that protects our most vulnerable residents.”

TNC in Massachusetts could not have realized our accomplishments without a team effort that provided an effective combination of policy and science, which included Steve Long, Laura Marx, forest ecologist and Emily Myron, policy manager.

An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy is formative legislation that could be emulated across the U.S., bringing people together across the aisle and leading to important and impactful changes for the future of people and nature.

Loren Dowd is a Marketing and Communications Manager at The Nature Conservancy.

Five Reasons Why You Should Listen Out for ‘Nature Tech’ This Year

Photo Credit: Forbes, This Start-Up Wants To Make Reforestation More High-Tech. Andrew Wight.

Whether’s it’s watching David Attenborough’s latest Perfect Planet films or using high-tech VR to experience the Amazon, many of us are familiar with experiencing the natural world through technology. We are, however, much less familiar with understanding the many emerging ways in which technology can and should help us protect, restore and more sustainably manage our natural resources.

At Nature4Climate (N4C), we are excited by the emergence of what we are calling ‘nature tech’ – a term that encompasses the application of modern technology to help enable, accelerate and scale-up nature’s ability to combat climate change and deliver a range of other benefits for people and the planet.

Left to its own devices, nature has been providing benefits to humankind since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, in far too many places, nature is under threat and we now know that proactive steps need to be taken care for our natural ecosystems. These actions are known, collectively, as nature-based solutions (NbS), which are defined by IUCN as ‘actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’. A sub-section of NbS are natural climate solutions that are focused specifically on climate mitigation and adaptation.

In the midst of a global health crisis, the collapse of biodiversity, and a warming climate, the need for NbS has never been greater. But despite their potential, NbS still face a number of barriers. They require government policies and incentives; they require community support and engagement; and they require private sector understanding and investment, both in the corporate and finance sectors.

These are all areas that N4C, and many others, are working on. But it is also clear that, like most things, NbS can be greatly aided by innovative technology. Many see nature and technology as polar opposites, and by extension believe that “natural” and “technological” solutions to global crises exist in conflict. We believe the opposite, and so this year we will be turning our attention to ‘nature tech’ – technology that can accelerate the deployment of NbS at scale.

Defining ‘nature tech’

The notion of ‘cleantech’ has existed for more than a decade, and is synonymous with eco-innovation, encompassing high-tech companies that create environmental added value. In its 2020 report, the Cleantech Group estimated that more than $7.4 billion had been raised by its top 100 companies from investors spanning 45 countries – and the whole sector has been estimated to be worth about $4 trillion. Cleantech is defined as ‘new technology and related business models that offer competitive returns for investors and customers while providing solutions to global challenges’.

To date, definitions of cleantech have mostly covered companies that focus on renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling, supply chain efficiencies, etc., with emerging trends in what is known as ‘ag tech’. At N4C, we believe there is huge potential for the growth of companies that apply technology advances – whether that’s satellite monitoring, drone technology, AI, genomic sequencing, block chain etc – for the benefit of nature and the climate.

So, how do we define ‘nature tech’? In its broadest sense, it is high-tech applications that enable, accelerate and scale-up NbS. N4C is currently conducting a landscape-mapping and scoping exercise and will release a more precise definition during the CogX festival in June in the UK. But based on our initial assessment, we believe it covers the following areas, albeit not exclusively:

Emerging trends

The number of the companies that embody this trend are still relatively few compared to the numbers reported by the Cleantech Group, but it is increasing. For example, Pachama has attracted attention and funding for its combination of machine learning and satellite monitoring to protect forests by connecting them to global carbon markets. In Canada, Flash Forest has pioneered a high-tech approach that can speed up reforestation by 10 times. Moja global is developing open-source software to improve accuracy and lower the cost of developing a system to measure emissions from forestry, agriculture and other land uses. Finnish company Carbo Culture focuses on high-tech biochar solutions to enhance carbon sequestration in soils, while NatureMetrics uses cutting-edge genetic techniques to monitor biodiversity. Tech can also give us an insight into a previously obscure and hidden world. We have long relied on systems like TRASE to look at supply chain transparency and the cause and effect of commodity production and trade, and this technology is rapidly improving.

There are also initiatives focused on building support and funding for these companies: the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator was launched in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to accelerate investment in start-ups looking to help solve food, water and climate challenges. In December 2020, the Sustaintech Xcelerator was launched by DBS, Google, the World Bank and others to support climate innovators who are developing solutions that increase confidence in NbS.

Why is this emerging trend important? We believe that there are five good reasons for nature-tech – the bridge between the worlds of technology and nature – to be strengthened and invested in.

  1. Nature tech has a vital role to play in accelerating the deployment of nature-based solutions, at a time when speed is of the essence. We cannot reach the goals of the Paris Agreement without large-scale deployment of natural climate solutions by 2030. It can also help us map, measure and deploy NBS at the right places at the right time.
  2. Equally important are the jobs that can be created. This includes all the livelihoods supported by nature-positive investments, such as sustainable food production and reforestation efforts, as well as creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs to build nature tech businesses that may not currently exist.
  3. Technology also enables the democratization of opportunity. Ideas can come from anywhere, and a bottom-up revolution in nature-based solutions is possible in every country, facilitated by accessible technology such as mobile phones and platforms such as the World Economic Forum’s UpLink that connects projects on the ground to experts and investors.
  4. Transparency and accountability are especially critical in the race to net zero, particular for nature’s place in that race. This is where technology can play an outsized role, to help solve many of the existential hurdles that nature-based solutions to climate have faced – around monitoring, measuring, verifying and reporting.
  5. And last but never least, finance. Nature-based solutions are much in need of investment, attracting less than 10% of current public climate finance. Technology can help derisk projects and play an important role in both creating a marketplace and attracting finance, by reducing transaction costs, enhancing supply chain transparency, and looking into past and future models and trends.

Instead of just using technology to experience nature – a poor substitute for the real thing – N4C believes tech can be a huge force for unlocking the potential of nature-based solutions. It’s time to bridge the worlds of nature and technology. We live at a moment of extreme urgency with a need for innovation, solutions and using the best tools that the modern world can give us. Nature Tech is just beginning. We think it’s the next big thing, the next big investment opportunity, the next revolution in thinking and solutions.

“Tech is a tool; it’s up to us how we use it. Nature now needs tech support too.”

Lucy Almond is the Director and Chair of Nature4Climate.

Six Habitat Improvements That Are Also Climate Solutions

Colorado fisherman. Photo Credit: Russ Schnitzer/The Nature Conservancy

From extreme droughts, flooding, and fires to altered migration patterns and “hoot owl” fishing restrictions, America’s sportsmen and women have seen firsthand the impacts of a changing climate. If we are to protect and restore the habitats that support all the species we love to pursue, the hunting and fishing community must be part of climate change solutions.

There is no one silver bullet or single set of actions that will turn the tides entirely—climate change can only be addressed with a comprehensive strategy that involves all of us and all the tools we have. Thankfully, this includes habitat conservation measures already supported by sportsmen and women.

Here are six habitat improvement strategies that provide this win-win proposition: better hunting and fishing opportunities and fewer climate-change-driven impacts to fish and wildlife.

Improve Forest Management

The nation’s forests provide habitat for wildlife, shade to cool trout streams, and many convenient places to hang a tree stand, but they also store carbon—keeping carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and warming the globe. In fact, across the world, forests store as much as one-third of all emissions from burning fossil fuels or about 2.6 billion tons of carbon each year.

Forests also draw additional carbon out of the atmosphere. Young, healthy growing forests mostly sequester carbon while older forests store it, which is why it helps to have diverse, well-managed forests. Unfortunately, decades of fire suppression and past management practices have left many public forests in poor health and vulnerable to uncharacteristically large wildfires. Poorly managed forests can alter the carbon storage and sequestration balance.

Hunters and anglers are already advocating for reforestation, active management of young stands, and conservation of late-successional forests, because these measures promote diverse habitat conditions, reduce fire risk, and filter polluted runoff that would otherwise harm trout and salmon streams. But these are also natural climate solutions. One of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s s top priorities this year is pushing decision-makers to ensure that savings from the recent wildfire funding fix will go toward forest health and management. This is just one step toward securing more of the habitat and climate benefits of our national forests.

Reverse Grasslands Loss

Native grasslands are being lost at an alarming rate due to agricultural conversion, development, and other factors. Just like forests, degraded western rangelands and grasslands are less resilient to temperature and weather changes, and their carbon storage and sequestering benefits are altered as more habitat damage is done. Invasive species like cheatgrass now dominate many sagebrush landscapes and have dramatically altered this ecosystem’s productivity, stability, and fire regime.

But grasslands and shrub communities also absorb huge amounts of carbon.

Restoration and conservation of rangelands and grasslands will be an important component of a broad-scale, comprehensive habitat and climate resilience strategy. We need to stop converting these habitats and focus on restoring grasslands to increase their resilience and productivity.

Conserve and Restore Wetlands
Wetland Ducks. Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Inland and coastal wetlands, marshes, estuaries, swamps, deltas, and floodplains are among nature’s most productive ecosystems—providing vital habitat for migratory waterfowl and both fresh and saltwater species of gamefish—that also store carbon.

Wetlands across the country already provide critical habitat, reduce erosion, improve water quality, and filter flood waters to protect our communities. But they are also being lost—drained, developed, converted to crops, or damaged beyond repair.

We are still fighting the rollback of Clean Water Act protections that has stripped wetlands and headwater streams of the safeguards that could prevent further wetlands loss.

Globally, wetlands may presently sequester as much as 700 billion tons of carbon each year. Once drained or partially dried, these areas may become a net source of methane and carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. They are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased drought can convert permanent wetlands to semi-permanent or seasonal ones.

We need to protect our remaining wetlands and reverse the loss while restoring those that have been altered to help meet the nation’s goals for flood control, clean water, habitat, and carbon reduction.

Boost Farm Bill Conservation Programs

Roughly 40 percent of the United States is in agricultural production. This sector represents about 9 percent of all carbon emissions, but farmers and ranchers also contribute significantly to carbon storage and sequestration when they manage and preserve grasslands, wetlands, and forests.

Our community is already preparing to work with Congress on a 2023 Farm Bill with strong conservation funding, and this would give landowners more of a chance to contribute to climate change solutions, as well. Increasing Conservation Reserve Program acreage to 50 million acres, for example, would enhance the habitat benefits for whitetail and mule deer, prairie chickens, pheasants, quail, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and countless other species—not to mention provide better hunting and fishing experiences for the sportsmen and women who rely on CRP lands for access.

Boosting the CRP would also give landowners the option to conserve grasslands and wetlands that combat climate change. Expanding this and other conservation programs would be a great starting point for strengthening the role that private landowners play in the climate fight.

Continue the Gulf Coast Comeback
Whiskey Island. Photo Credit: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority

Rising seas have already destroyed thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal salt marshes and seagrass beds that are vital to many sportfish and waterfowl. Louisiana’s more seasoned duck hunters can likely point to actual ground they once hunted that has now been lost.

The good news is that building coastal infrastructure is a viable solution to fight these catastrophic losses.

Reparation funds from the BP oil spill have already helped to rebuild habitat health beyond what was damaged in the environmental disaster and recover some of what has been lost to subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise.

The continued conservation and restoration of these habitats can help save lives and protect coastal communities, while providing healthier fisheries, cleaner water, and enhancing resilience to climate change. We need to ensure federal programs and funding are available to identify areas for protection, restoration, or management and to develop effective strategies to sustain the natural benefits of coastal habitats.

Shore Up Streambanks

One of the most obvious impacts of climate change for America’s anglers is rising water temperatures that threaten coldwater trout species. This is compounded in places where streams have been degraded by major floods, wildfires, dam construction and land-use changes. Many conservation volunteers cut their teeth on projects aimed at restoring healthy stream flows, reducing streambank erosion, and ultimately lowering water temperatures, but they may not realize riparian areas have an underappreciated ability to store carbon, both in vegetation and the soil itself.

At the federal level, we will need to invest in numerous solutions to build resilient river systems and ensure our lakes, rivers, and streams are able to function as productive carbon sinks while also supporting the fish and wildlife we love to pursue. Programs and policies emphasizing water conservation, water efficiency, nutrient reductions, and riparian zone protection and restoration will be critical.

Let Habitat Work

Any national climate strategy must include land- and water-based solutions that harness the power of our natural systems. But, as you can see, these habitat improvements are already on our wish list as a conservation community.

It’s important to note that these actions will not only benefit fish and wildlife, enhance soil quality, and create cleaner water—they will also create jobs and strengthen rural economies. But there is no time to waste, whether we’re talking about implementing natural climate solutions, reversing habitat loss and wildlife species declines, or putting Americans back to work through conservation. We have to stop debating about resolving climate change and get to work on implementing these straightforward natural solutions. Let’s allow habitat to contribute all it can to the climate fight.

Ed Arnett is the Chief Scientist at Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

An Audacious and Timely Conservation Challenge

We should all applaud President Biden’s executive order calling for conservation of 30% of the U.S. land base by 2030. This bold “30×30” vision is firmly rooted in science, given that protected land is key to a healthy and secure future for all Americans. It provides pure drinking water, healthy food, clean air, habitat for wildlife, and places for people to reflect, recreate, hunt and fish. Conserved land also provides protection from natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, and absorbs and keeps carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere.

The president’s vision also recognizes that land conservation is not keeping pace with growing threats to our lands, waters, wildlife and ways of life. Every 30 seconds, the United States loses a football field of natural lands to roads, houses, pipelines and other development. Since 1970, North America has lost 3 billion birds — 29% of its avian population. Forty acres of farmland in the United States are lost to development every hour.

Given these facts, the audaciousness of the president’s conservation goal is right for this moment. And this “moon shot” for nature is necessary for more than just environmental reasons: Land — and the public’s desire to conserve it — provides one of the few opportunities to reduce political polarization and build social cohesion among a deeply splintered American populace. This was demonstrated most recently in the strong bipartisan consensus last Congress that led to the permanent reauthorization and full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In particular, land conservation that takes place outside of the government sphere — through community-based, nonprofit organizations known as land trusts — provides a means for Americans of all backgrounds to save the places they need and love through personal initiative, landowner empowerment and charity. By finding common ground around these core American values and the lands we cherish, we can regain a sense of shared purpose and help heal a fractured nation. To put it in terms used by President Biden in his inaugural address, America’s farms and forests, its rivers and coasts and its mountains and meadows are “common objects of our love.” Conserving these places through citizen-led community efforts can bring us back together.

Photo Credit: Tila Zimmerman/TNC 

Most Americans are unaware that land trusts — powered by more than 200,000 volunteers and almost 5 million members of all political stripes — are working in almost every community in the United States to protect important lands. Likewise, few know that the nation’s land trust community has conserved approximately 60 million acres over the past 40 years — an area larger than all the land contained in America’s National Parks.

President Biden’s executive order tacitly acknowledged that to reach the 30×30 goal, we must rely on and bolster this community of nonprofits.

In short, we cannot achieve the 30×30 goal only by adding to the federal estate; we must empower private landowners to conserve their natural and working lands at a much greater pace and scale. Land trusts are uniquely qualified to make that happen and, importantly, they can do so in an inclusive and equitable way.

On behalf of the 1,000 land trusts my organization represents, I pledge that we will conserve at least another 60 million acres by the end of this decade. To do so, we need the help of the federal government. I call on President Biden and leaders in Congress to provide increased support to land trusts and the private landowners with whom they work. This includes protecting the integrity of the federal tax incentive for conservation easement donations; increasing mandatory funding for Farm Bill conservation programs that maintain viable working farms, ranches and forests; and creating mechanisms to compensate landowners when they increase the capacity of their lands to absorb and store carbon.

Through his executive order, President Biden adds credibility to the 30×30 goal, reveals the urgency we face in saving America’s undeveloped lands, and gives us a vision that can inspire and challenge us. Let us find a way to unite around this cause, garner the necessary resources both inside and outside government and get on with the essential task of conserving our natural heritage for the benefit of all Americans. The health of both our environment and our body politic depends on it.

This post was originally written for the Land Trust Alliance’s blog, The Dirt.

Andrew Bowman is president & CEO of the Land Trust Alliance.

New California Roadmap: A Natural Path to Climate Solutions

Coastline at The Nature Conservancy’s Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve in central California. Photo Credit: Brandon Flint © The Nature Conservancy

California has long been a place that set trends.  From celebrities to surfing, the nation has long looked West to follow California’s lead.  And, of course, California has also been a global leader in attacking climate change.

Driven, in part, by record-breaking floods and fire seasons, the world’s fifth-largest economy has adopted numerous policies to curb emissions.  In 2006, California adopted its first economy-wide greenhouse gas reduction goal to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which it has achieved.  That initial action has been followed by other policies, including setting a low carbon fuel standard, sustainable communities strategies, a renewable energy portfolio, and mobilizing state agencies in the effort to reach a carbon-neutral economy by 2045. 

California is also well-known for its greenhouse gas emissions trading program, which places a declining emissions cap on major-emitting facilities and allows these facilities to trade emissions permits and invest in a limited amount of emissions offsets to meet reductions goals. 

But what is California’s next climate action milestone?  Using California’s world-class nature to help address climate change. 

That’s why we just published Nature-based Climate Solutions: A Roadmap to Accelerate Action in California, to highlight key strategies that will help California achieve this outcome.

Redwoods at Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park in California in United States, North America. Photo Credit: Sandra Howard © The Nature Conservancy

For California to successfully and effectively integrate nature-based strategies into its goal to be carbon neutral, we need to understand their potential contribution to greenhouse gas reductions across the state.  We also need to understand and identify the various policy pathways and incentives, beyond offsets, that could be pursued to support these reductions.  The Roadmap shows how we can accomplish just that. 

Pulling together the science analyses published by The Nature Conservancy and colleagues, we estimate the statewide greenhouse gas reduction potential of thirteen different nature-based climate strategies, ranging from agricultural management practices, to improved forest management and wetland restoration to fire risk reduction and urban reforestation.  We present this in a spatially explicit way that also identifies the opportunities to achieve additional benefits through these actions, including habitat for species, groundwater recharge, and benefits to underserved communities, among others. We then highlight case studies and a policy discussion by region across the state to highlight a number of different policies and incentives that could be scaled up across the state to accelerate nature-based climate strategies. 

While we acknowledge that increased funding for nature-based strategies is critical, we make it a point to highlight additional “non-monetary” strategies that are important to accelerate action, including:

  • Improvements to permitting processes to restore wetlands and reduce fire risk,
  • Land use and conservation policies that could be adjusted to support both avoided emissions from land conversion and reductions in transportation emissions, and
  • Public-private partnerships between public agencies and utilities that could fund urban reforestation at larger scale and reduce the tree canopy gap in underserved communities                 

As discussions regarding how California can reach its carbon neutrality goals continue in the California legislature and Administration, we will continue to use this report to reframe the discussion on the role and importance of nature-based climate solutions, underscore their importance in achieving carbon neutrality, and highlight how we can get there.  While the focus of this report is on California, the issues we face here, and their relevance can extend to other jurisdictions in the United States and globally.     

Michelle Passero is the Director of California Climate Program for The Nature Conservancy.