Pending legislation would worsen climate change
Prof. William Moomaw*, Board Director
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
Seven senators – two Republicans, four Democrats and an independent – have co-sponsored an amendment that would unintentionally encourage deforestation and worsen climate change. In response late last month, more than sixty scientists and three professional societies signed onto our letter to the senators pointing out a serious factual error in their proposed legislation.
The amendment, which is attached to legislation now under consideration to update the nation’s energy policy, would mandate that all federal agencies count the burning of wood from forests as a “renewable energy resource” that is “carbon neutral” – meaning that it does not add CO2 to the atmosphere. Reality is more complex, and forest bioenergy certainly is not carbon neutral. In any case, the carbon footprint of bioenergy, whatever it is, should be measured scientifically rather than specified by legislation.
The irony is that all seven backers of the amendment accept the reality of climate change. Two of them – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the principal sponsor, and Sen. Angus King, an independent – are from Maine and may be supporting the mandate in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to help the struggling forest products industry in their state.
Forest bioenergy may at first appear to be nearly carbon neutral, because while burning wood for energy releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a comparable amount of CO2 is later removed from the atmosphere if the wood that was burned is fully regrown. Not all forests are sustainably managed, however, and even if they are, it takes 50 to 100 years for new trees to grow and absorb the released carbon dioxide, which meanwhile remains in the atmosphere and continues to warm the planet. And this assumes that new trees reach maturity despite the increasing challenges of fire, insects and drought. In addition, forest soils release carbon dioxide when disturbed. Finally, the process of preparing wood for use as fuel takes significant energy, further adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
By treating forest bioenergy as carbon neutral when it isn’t, this amendment would encourage deforestation and worsen climate change. That’s why dozens of scientists and eight of the nation’s major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have urged the Senate to reject the amendment as “an environmentally damaging and scientifically indefensible approach to biomass policy.”
Globally, forests and soils absorb an amount of carbon dioxide equal to about one-quarter of annual emissions from all sources, including fossil fuels, forest losses and soil degradation. In addition to halting fossil fuel emissions, it’s essential that we regrow forests that have been cut, and restore and expand forests that have been degraded, if we are to have any hope of avoiding unmanageable rates of warming and sea level rise.
Expanding rather than burning forests as we phase out fossil fuels might make it possible to return atmospheric concentrations to 1970s levels. It would also protect biodiversity, prevent flooding and maintain the many additional benefits provided by forests to the millions who enjoy these productive ecosystems.
As scientists, we need to send a clear message to policy makers about the critical role that forests and soils play in removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
As scientists, we also know that legislating science, especially when the fundamental facts are wrong, is never a good idea.
*Professor Emeritus, Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, Tufts University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Successful crop trials in the DRC
WHRC’s Projet Equateur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has recently embarked on an effort to engage a village community in a sustainable rice growing venture that has the potential to increase food production while reducing deforestation.
Traditionally, communities such as this have produced a type of rice that grows on dry land, which must be cleared for agriculture either by logging or slashing and burning. The harvests of this ‘upland rice’ are relatively small and the growing areas unsustainable.
Using a technique called SRI (system of rice intensification) developed in Madagascar in the mid-1980s, last fall the project team of Dr. Glenn Bush and Project Manager Melaine Kermarc sought out one of many degraded swamp areas to introduce a ‘wetland rice’ paddy. The first harvest of wetland rice has shown a remarkably successful yield and impressed the local community to the degree that the project team, which now includes an agricultural consultant, intends to train villagers in wetland rice cultivation and composting techniques for fertilization to create more rice paddies.
These wetland rice paddies combined with the region’s two rainy seasons translate to two growing seasons per year and, perhaps in time, to a more sustainable way of life.
Mapping the potential for global land carbon storage
Massively increasing the amount of carbon stored in land reservoirs such as forests and soil could and should be an important part of a comprehensive strategy to avoid disastrous and irreversible climate outcomes.
WHRC has partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and others to develop, promote, and implement this idea. As a step along this path, a new initiative in cooperation with TNC will focus on identifying and mapping the potential for increasing land carbon storage on a global scale. This information will help to identify high-priority areas for projects to increase land-carbon storage.
With support from the Blue Moon Fund and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the WHRC scientific team of Drs. Alessandro Baccini, Wayne Walker, Jonathan Sanderman, and Richard Houghton will collaborate on the project that will form the basis for climate stabilization through climate-smart decision making on where and how land is used at local to global scales. Using a range of methods to arrive at multiple climate/land surface models, this major endeavor will illuminate land management and carbon storage practices in key regions of tropical and boreal forests around the globe.
The findings will be made available to the public through a web platform and a variety of educational products and to policy makers at top-level climate meetings.
WHRC and Arctic 21: Collaborating to save the Arctic
WHRC is a recognized world leader in understanding regional and global impacts of the warming of the Arctic, particularly on the issues of boreal forests and greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost. WHRC has been working on these issues with Arctic 21, a network of scientific, policy, and public interest NGOs.
The partnership between WHRC and Arctic 21 is intended to address the alarming pace at which climate change is affecting the Arctic and, moreover, how changes in the Arctic feed back to impact global climate. The Arctic “is unraveling before our eyes,” says Arctic 21’s chairman Rafe Pomerance. The network has been instrumental in helping the US State Department and the US government address the impacts of climate change as a key element of the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
The Arctic Council’s rotating chairmanship was turned over to the US last spring, and since then, WHRC scientists have worked with key representatives to make permafrost thaw a visible issue. Their success was visible last August with the speeches at the GLACIER Conference in Alaska of both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Arctic 21 and WHRC have been effective in achieving press coverage and in helping to influence agendas for other meetings on the Arctic, such as last week’s White House summit between President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when the two leaders pledged cooperation to preserve the Arctic. See the recent op-ed on in The Hill by Arctic 21’s Rafe Pomerance and Russell Shearer.
NASA New Investigator Award
WHRC Assistant Scientist Marcia Macedo has received a NASA new investigator award for the project, “The Cattle Connection: Quantifying carbon emissions from pasture expansion and intensification in Brazil’s agricultural heartland.” Dr. Macedo is also the recipient of a recently announced Fulbright Scholarship and will spend part of the year working on these projects in the Brazilian Amazon.
Fostering the next generation of scientists
Researchers from the Woods Hole scientific institutions annually volunteer to observe and judge at the Falmouth school science fairs. Last month WHRC’s Kathleen Savage and Kylen Solvik volunteered at Falmouth High School to present their method for measuring the release of carbon dioxide through the process of soil respiration. The effort is sponsored by the Woods Hole Science and Technology Education Partnership (WHSTEP). WHRC’s Mary Farina served as a judge at that fair, while WHRC Founder George Woodwell was a judge at the Falmouth Academy science fair. Awards from WHRC went to students at both schools.
Researcher recollects youth along the Potomac
In a letter to the editor in The Washington Post this week, WHRC’s Zander Nassikas penned an environmental plea to save the Potomac River from becoming a dumping ground for coal ash wastewater.
Writes Mr. Nassikas, “I have swum in the Potomac, ice-skated on the Potomac, kayaked in the Potomac, rock-climbed along the Potomac, run along the Potomac, paddleboarded the Potomac, and just sat and listened along the Potomac. I have scrambled her steep banks, found a beaver’s tree-cutting ground in her groves, heard owls in her canopy. I have sat high on a cliff below her thunderous falls.” Mr. Nassikas is an environmentalist today in part, he says, because of growing up along the Potomac, and he fervently hopes its ecosystem will be preserved.
New work by WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell
MIT Press has just published A World to Live In: An Ecologist’s Vision for a Plundered Planet, the latest book by WHRC Founder George M. Woodwell.
Dr. Woodwell, who has spent his long career studying what he terms “The Great Issues of Environment,” draws on experience over the post-war years to show how biophysical limits of the Earth increasingly define the limits of economic and political ventures.
He sees such insights as “establishing the core concepts of conservation and government and the rules necessary for keeping industrial and other commercial interests from devouring the human birthright to an unsullied world – clean water, clean air, wholesome food, and a place to live in equity with one’s neighbors.”
Dr. Woodwell contends, “Despite contemporary appearances, the world was built by, and is still maintained by, the natural communities of land and sea. Their functions and distribution and protection are the core topic of research, ever more difficult and challenging in more populous world. These topics, while exposed on the front pages of newspapers around the world daily, push their way into government and economics, but slowly.”
Dr. Woodwell envisions his book as appealing to all who are interested in the “evolution of government and the preservation of a wholesome and supportive global environment capable of supporting a new, self-sustaining and vigorous civilization designed to continue indefinitely, transitions which are underway.”
Signed copies of A World to Live In are available through WHRC (email@example.com).
Recent peer-reviewed articles by WHRC scientists
Abbott, B.W., et al. 2016. Biomass offsets little or none of permafrost carbon release from soils, streams, and wildfire: an expert assessment. Environmental Research Letters.
Holden, S.R., B.M. Rogers, K.K. Treseder, and J.T. Randerson. 2016. Fire severity influences the response of soil microbes to a boreal forest fire. Environmental Research Letters 11(3):035004. [see press release]
Tian, H., C. Lu, P. Ciais, A.M. Michalak, J.G. Canadell, E. Saikawa, D.N. Huntzinger, K. Gurney, S. Sitch, B. Zhang, J. Yang, P. Bousquet, L. Bruhwiler, G. Chen, E. Dlugokencky, P. Friedlingstein, J. Melillo, S. Pan, B. Poulter, R. Prinn, M. Saunois, C.R Schwalm, S.C. Wofsy. 2016. The terrestrial biosphere as a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Nature. [see press release]
Hoover, D.L., and B.M. Rogers. 2016. Not all droughts are created equal: the impacts of interannual drought pattern and magnitude on grassland carbon cycling. Global Change Biology.
Webb, E.E, E.A.G Schuur, S.M. Natali, K. Oken, R. Bracho, J. Krapek, D. Risk, and N. Nickerson. 2016. Increased wintertime CO2 loss as a result of sustained tundra warming. Journal of Geophysical Research Biogeosciences. [see press release]
Wu, Jin, L.P. Albert, A.P. Lopes, N. Restrepo-Coupe, M. Hayek, K.T. Wiedemann, K. Guan, S.C. Stark, B. Christoffersen, N. Prohaska, J.V. Tavares, S. Marostica, H. Kobayashi, M.L. Ferreira, K. Silva Campos, R. da Silva, P.M. Brando, D.G. Dye, T.E. Huxman, A.R. Huete, B.W. Nelson, S.R. Saleska. Leaf development and demography explain photosynthetic seasonality in Amazon evergreen forests. Science 351(6276):972-976.
Xue, K., M.M. Yuan, Z.J. Shi, Y. Qin, Y. Deng, L. Cheng, L. Wu, Z. He, J.D. Van Nostrand, R. Bracho, S. Natali, E.A.G. Schuur, C. Luo, K.T. Konstantinidis, Q. Wang, J.R. Cole, J.M. Tiedje, Y. Luo, and J. Zhou. 2016. Tundra soil carbon is vulnerable to rapid microbial decomposition under climate warming. Nature Climate Change. [see press release]
Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.