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New England Forests Can Help Slow Climate Change. A New Report Shows Exactly How Much

In this 2010 file photo, a new-growth black cherry tree sprouts up in a stand of birch trees on protected conservation land in Weston, Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)
In this 2010 file photo, a new-growth black cherry tree sprouts up in a stand of birch trees on protected conservation land in Weston, Massachusetts. (Charles Krupa/AP)

In the big scheme of things, the Bobryk forest is pretty small potatoes. It’s about 300 acres of birch, hemlock and other hardwood trees, sandwiched between two larger state forests in western Massachusetts.

“It feels weird to say this forest isn’t special because that’s not what I mean,” says Laura Marx, a forest ecologist at The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. Rather, says Marx, Bobryk forest is “a really cool example” of things gone right, and an illustration of exactly how preserving forests might help slow climate change.

When the privately owned forest went on the market in 2020, The Nature Conservancy, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the state of Massachusetts put Bobryk forest into conservation to protect it from development.

That means that about 136,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide already stored in the trunks and roots of Bobryk trees stayed there, says Marx. And each year going forward, the trees should remove and store another 190 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s roughly equal to the emissions of 58 cars and trucks.

Marx drew these numbers from a report released Tuesday that attempts to quantify exactly how much carbon dioxide could be kept out of the sky by preserving forests in the region.

The report by researchers at Clark University, called “Avoided Deforestation: A Climate Mitigation Opportunity in New England and New York,” provides hard numbers for officials trying to hit their climate goals — for instance, Massachusetts’ ambitious plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Collectively, New York and New England are releasing 4.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere each year due to forest loss, the report found. At the same time, the states are losing out on 1.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that the trees could have stored if they were left in the ground.

Massachusetts is losing about 5,000 acres of forest each year, according to Mass Audubon. That’s an area about half the size of Provincetown cut down, mostly for housing developments, commercial sites and solar farms. By doing this, the state adds the equivalent of about 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

“In the state of Massachusetts, that’s equal to 2% of the state’s fossil fuel emissions across all sectors in the year 2018,” says study author Christopher Williams, a professor in Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography. “Even though it’s only 5,000 acres per year, it still adds up.”

In August, a UN report detailing the latest scientific consensus on climate change noted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been in the last 2 million years. The carbon dioxide — along with other greenhouse gases — is warming the planet and already leading to widespread effects in Massachusetts, including sea-level rise, increased rainfall and hotter summers.

“It is not enough to merely stop using fossil fuels. We also need to remove some of that carbon pollution, to draw it down from the air and the atmosphere,” says Marx. “Right now, the only tool we have that works at scale and at cost to remove that carbon pollution is nature.”

Trees pull carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots and branches as they grow. Cutting down trees can emit carbon dioxide directly into the air if the wood is burned, dumped in a landfill or left to decompose. (If the wood is made into furniture or a building, much of the carbon stays trapped inside until the item’s eventual demise.)

The study authors accounted for these various fates of trees in their calculations of carbon storage. They used satellite data to track forest losses down to less than a quarter of an acre, pinpointing areas that remained deforested for at least 10 years.

“Losing these forests is an expensive thing to do in all sorts of ways — not just expensive money-wise, expensive carbon-emissions-wise, expensive habitat-wise, human-health-wise,” Marx says. “If we have the opportunity to plan development in a better way to reduce this rate of loss, we should take it.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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