Changing the Game: California’s Forests and Global Climate Change

December, 2016



California’s forests can help us fight climate change—if we let them. By recognizing the value of healthy, intact forests, we can use regulations and incentives to invest in the preservation and restoration of our forests, not only curbing climate change, but preserving clean air and water while protecting and restoring native habitat and biodiversity.

California’s forests can store carbon dioxide while mitigating the increasingly extreme effects of global climate change. Incredibly, scientists have shown that deforestation and other logging that depletes forestland productivity are the second-largest source of global carbon dioxide emissions after fossil fuel combustion. Carbon dioxide emissions from forest resource extraction activities are known to account for as much as 20 percent of annual totals both globally, and in the State of California. 

California’s forests are currently emitting more carbon dioxide than they sequester. Sixty-one percent of the overall reduction in forestland carbon dioxide storage is associated with losses in carbon density per acre—less biomass is growing per-acre today than has grown in the past. In the redwoods, forest wood fiber and biomass in managed landscapes in the redwoods have been depleted to at most 10-15 percent of historic levels. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 2016, research conducted via Humboldt State University found that the coast redwood forests are capable of sequestering more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per-acre than any other forest type on Earth. 

California has moved to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and to seek out ways to store more carbon dioxide. In 2006, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 32, the “California Global Warming Solutions Act.” AB 32 established a state-wide carbon emissions reduction target aimed at reducing emission rates back to 1990 emission levels by the year 2020 and to achieve an 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by the year 2050. Ten years later, the State legislature passed Senate Bill 32, which calls for reduction in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 in order to keep the state on-track to meet the larger 2050 reduction goal. 

AB 32 implementation has been placed under the charge of the California Air Resources Control Board (ARB). ARB is using a combination of regulation, innovation, and incentives to attain greenhouse gas reduction targets in many industry sectors in California. “Cap and Trade,” ARB’s market-based program under AB 32, is predicated upon limiting or “capping” emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses with individual targets, with reductions in the overall and individual emissions “caps” each year. For each ton of emissions allowed under a cap, the state issues a permit. Businesses can sell or trade the permits on a secondary market as well. As the cap declines, the number of permits declines and the overall value of the permits, as well as the reductions, increases.  

However, the California Board of Forestry and CalFire have been slow to respond to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with logging. In 2012, the State Legislature enacted AB 1504, legislation designed to light a fire under the Board and Department. AB 1504 required the forest products industry to go “above and beyond the status quo” to ensure California’s forests serve to sequester more carbon dioxide.

EPIC is engaging in AB 32 implementation at several levels. EPIC has been involved in stakeholder working groups and other discussions surrounding the development of the California Forest Carbon Plan by the Forest Climate Action Team (FCAT), an inter-agency working team tasked with creating the roadmap for forestry in California in the future. EPIC is also engaging in critical review of existing Forest Practice Rules in preparation for upcoming advocacy at the State Board of Forestry as it works to ensure compliance with AB 32 and other climate legislation.

Protecting the redwoods into the future means addressing global climate change and human contributions to it. Thankfully, it is the redwoods themselves that provide us with the opportunity. Change can be arduous and slow. But the din created by everyday citizens and groups like EPIC must accordingly be louder, bolder, and more committed than ever if we are to preserve what remains, and work to heal and restore the rest.

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