By TONY HALL
If New York State is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent by 2050, as required by this year’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, it will need its forests.
But it’s not for wood biofuel, lawmakers decided. By design, the legislation omits wood-fired biomass from the list of officially recognized, renewable energy systems.
Rather, New York is counting on its forests to inhale heat-trapping carbon dioxide; to sequester the carbon that cannot be captured by new technology or significantly reduced by clean energy.
“Some emissions, such as those associated with air travel and from some industrial sources, will be difficult to eliminate,” said Jared Snyder, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Deputy Commissioner for Air Resources, Climate Change and Energy. “That’s why it’s essential that we identify and take advantage of the opportunities for sequestering carbon in a natural way, in our forests.”
Of course, some representatives of the forest products industry, many of whom attended a conference on the new law and its ramifications in Queensbury at SUNY Adirondack on Oct. 15, appear to have hoped for a more dynamic, lucrative role in New York’s Green New Deal.
“It’s hard not to conclude that this legislation takes a very dim view of the role of sustainably sourced wood as an energy source,” said Charlie Niebling, whose company manufactures wood pellets.
There has been considerable debate about the potential for biofuels including wood pellets to help offset the climate impacts from fossil fuels, especially after the European Union embraced wood power as renewable energy. Although burning wood emits carbon dioxide, the industry argument goes, the trees that then grow in its place on responsibly managed forests recapture carbon over time. Canada exports most of its wood pellets to Europe, where they are more cost-competitive because power production is more expensive. Southeastern U.S. forestry companies are also supplying Europe, claiming environmental benefits for using waste wood. But some climate activists, including Vermont-based author Bill McKibben, argue that it doesn’t make sense to count on future trees to offset current emissions when the climate is in crisis now.
“Is there any opportunity for sustainably sourced wood from good forestry operations to play a role in meeting the energy needs of the state going forward?” Niebling asked.
According to DEC officials, the state’s new Climate Action Council and its stakeholder advisory panels will provide opportunities for groups such as the Empire State Forest Products Association to make recommendations that could increase the use of wood products in construction and transportation, among other areas.
The Climate Action Council will also play a role in the preservation and management of the state’s 15 million acres of private forest lands.
“What kind of policies and programs can we put into place that will make our forests more productive for carbon sequestration and help New York achieve carbon neutrality? The Climate Action Council is where we will develop those policies,” DEC’s Snyder said.
Most observers assume that some mechanisms for monetizing stewardship must be found if forests are to be preserved or managed for carbon sequestration.
Willie Janeway, the executive director of the Adirondack Council, said, “I would rather see forest owners compensated for cutting less and growing more.”
Financial incentives can persuade property owners to keep their lands as forest, said Jamie Brown, the executive director of the Lake George Land Conservancy, adding that New York’s Land Trusts “are working to integrate these into the state’s Climate Action Plan.”
According Colin Beier, a professor of forest and natural resources management at State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, 15 percent of the annual emissions of carbon from fossil fuels is already offset by American forests.
“Natural carbon sinks are natural climate solutions,” he said. “Forests are among our most efficient and cost effective means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.”
With 4 million acres of constitutionally protected forest preserves in the Adirondack and Catskill parks, New York is better situated than most states to utilize its forests to reduce its carbon footprint, said Beier.
Judy Drabicki, the DEC’s deputy commissioner for natural resources, said her agency is working with New York State’s land trusts to increase the capacity of forests to absorb carbon.
“We hope to work with land trusts on creating ‘working forest conservation easements,’ that will keep land as forest and demonstrate sustainable forest management,” she said. “Land trusts have not been fully utilized for these purposes.”
The Climate Action Council is expected to be appointed before Jan. 1.