How can we harness the nation’s lands—cultivated, wild, and urban—to meet climate goals and sustain people and ecosystems? Moving forward, Resources for the Future will explore ways to expand nature-based greenhouse gas storage and removal and reduce emissions related to agricultural production and increasingly frequent wildfires.
Land-sector policies related to forests, farms, rangelands, and urban areas are fundamental to achieving net-zero emissions and other climate goals. Clearly, nature-based greenhouse gas sequestration—that is, the removal and storage of greenhouse gases by forests, crops, and soils—is already important. US lands currently remove 13 percent of the nation’s total emissions every year. US lands also store emissions—currently 50 years’ worth of what the United States emits annually. And the role of the land sector in climate policy is poised to grow significantly. Net-zero commitments by nations, cities, companies, and investors are creating a huge voluntary market for sequestration credits (worth $50 billion by 2030, according to one estimate), with the majority likely to come from forest- and agriculture-offset projects. The agriculture and forestry provisions of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act also are notable. These acts provide billions of dollars in new funding and significantly expand federal programs to support innovative nature-based strategies.
Going forward, new policies will encourage afforestation, forest restoration, and forest protection to expand the carbon sink; promote agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; discourage emissions from forest fires; and incentivize the use of renewable forest and agriculture products in energy production.
With this growth in opportunity and demand comes a set of urgent questions, to which our attention is directed. One set of questions relates to the effectiveness of nature-based strategies and our ability to monitor and verify removal and storage. The costs of different types of nature-based solutions, who bears those costs, and where policy incentives and impacts will occur geographically also will be important to evaluate. Finally, the way we use and manage land affects not just greenhouse gases, but also a much broader portfolio of things that matter to communities, including jobs, tax revenues, commercial and public infrastructure, clean and abundant water, wildfire risks, biodiversity, and recreation. Our great reliance on land as a natural resource means that nature-based solutions need to be deployed in a political and legal context in which many other things matter and may complicate policy implementation.
The Land Use, Forestry, and Agriculture Program at Resources for the Future (RFF) works with decisionmakers in Congress, federal agencies, states, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to find the most effective ways to use natural systems to enhance carbon storage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And we do this with full consideration of the ways that communities and ecosystems will be affected (both positively and negatively) by the land-management changes to come.
With our detailed knowledge of policy frameworks, alongside our network of decisionmaker and stakeholder partners, RFF will help chart a course through the implementation challenges arising from the coming wave of nature-based climate activity. We’ll assess how greenhouse gas storage and emissions policies affect other environmental and social goals, including the protection of species and water resources, reduction of wildfire risks and damages, community well-being, and social equity. We will use our economic expertise to assess the performance, benefits, and costs of nature-based strategies and provide actionable data on land-related greenhouse gas storage and emissions. And we will analyze the ways in which policy options harness economic incentives and market forces to change land use, management, and production to meet our climate, social, and ecological ambitions.
We will assess best practices for managing forests and reducing wildfire risk.
Wildfires not only emit large amounts of greenhouse gases—they also threaten the nation’s carbon sink (which is mostly forests), life and property, and water resources. With the extent and severity of wildfires increasing, cost-effective wildfire management and forest stewardship are national priorities. We are analyzing the use of mechanical thinning and controlled burns (i.e., forest fuels management) to reduce the risk and severity of wildfire events. Fuels management can protect communities and forest resources but is not without risks and often is politically controversial. We also are analyzing the ways that biomass removed via mechanical thinning can be marketable as an input to bioenergy production.
We are assessing the social impacts of wildfires on life, property, and communities at the wildland-urban interface. The identification and quantification of these impacts can contribute to the way in which wildfire management is targeted geographically. We also will conduct policy analysis for the private sector and nongovernmental organizations, whose participation will be essential to find enduring solutions for landscape-scale wildfires. We aim to help firms and organizations answer questions such as: How can we best take advantage of complementary federal programs and funding? Where can we be involved in collaborative wildfire planning and decisionmaking? Do gaps exist in federal programs and activities that cry out for nongovernmental action?
We will quantitatively assess the potential for, and costs of, nature-based carbon sequestration on US lands.
As decisionmakers consider climate policies such as government payments for carbon sequestration, voluntary offset markets, carbon pricing, and tax incentives, they need to know the long-run effects of such policies on greenhouse gas inventories, the cost-effectiveness and permanence of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and specific communities and places. To meet this need, RFF will develop its national-scale model that estimates the effects of policies on nature-based carbon sequestration. With our Carbon and Land Use Model (CALM), policymakers can examine how policies affecting forests, agriculture, and urban land use quantitatively affect the sequestration of carbon. CALM features sophisticated, dynamic modeling of all US land use, land use change, and the dynamics of nature-based carbon removal and storage. Our modeling efforts will provide a critical “reality check” on projections and important estimates of uncertainty. The model also will help evaluate US climate change policies by supporting the cost-benefit analysis of nature-based carbon policies.
We’ll take a detailed look at how nature-based climate policies will affect communities.
Increased government and private-sector funding for nature-based carbon sequestration, along with stimulus for the development of new bioenergy and wood-product markets, soon will flow into rural US communities. While the economic impact of these policies on rural communities, forest owners, and managers likely will be positive overall, the socioeconomic effects are likely to be unevenly distributed and, for some communities, negative. For example, new policies are likely to change land values, patterns of land ownership, employment, tax revenues, and local non-forest, non-agriculture business conditions. Our work will explore questions such as, How will impacts differ between large- and small-scale landowners? How will differences in access to skills, labor, and technology affect the distribution of gains? How are disadvantaged (poorer and/or minority) owners, workers, and communities likely to fare?
We’ll look into the potential and risks of increased forest-biomass energy production.
Forest-biomass energy can be harnessed from fire-prone fuels and managed-forest systems. But although the environmental footprint of forest biomass has been the subject of substantial analysis and engagement by academic researchers, private-sector stakeholders, nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies, disagreement remains about the ultimate environmental and economic impacts of biomass combustion. Our work will involve the continued analysis of the risks and benefits of biomass energy, along with extensive engagement with stakeholders around specific advantages and disadvantages; how these advantages and disadvantages vary across contexts; and opportunities to minimize risks and maximize benefits. This engagement and analysis will allow us to illustrate future economic, social, and environmental outcomes associated with ramped-up bioenergy use; document areas of agreement, disagreement, and conflict; and outline how policies can be designed to maximize the overall benefits.
We’ll explore the integration of nature-based strategies into broader climate-policy frameworks.
Nature-based strategies operate alongside an array of technological options that also capture and store greenhouse gases (e.g., direct air capture) and strategies to reduce emissions (e.g., mitigation programs). These parallel frameworks and approaches raise a set of questions about how nature-based sequestration should be integrated with, compared to, and incentivized alongside more technological forms of sequestration and mitigation. We will analyze for the US climate-policy community the pros and cons of a policy framework that integrates rules and incentives across diverse removal and mitigation approaches. For example, is it desirable for the United States to have a consistent, integrated policy toward all removal and storage approaches—whether technological or nature-based? And if so, what should such a policy framework look like? Then we have the long-standing question of whether, and under what conditions, nature-based sequestration is eligible to offset emissions-mitigation commitments.
Nature-based strategies also play a role in both voluntary and compliance-based carbon markets. Interactions between voluntary and compliance markets raise their own related questions, such as how voluntary incentives affect compliance-driven incentives (and vice versa) and how existing voluntary markets for nature-based sequestration might support or constrain a movement to future compliance-based markets or carbon taxes.
Getting to a Net-Zero Resilient Economy through the Nature-Based Management of Agriculture and Forestry
A net-zero commitment requires not just reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also the removal and storage of greenhouse gases. The land sector in the United States provides a consequential carbon sink that could be enhanced by policies and market forces that shift land to more carbon-dense uses and convert more harvested biomass into energy and commercial materials with stored carbon content. US lands present an opportunity for rural, forest-adjacent, and agricultural communities to play a frontline role in climate solutions and other important objectives, such as reduced wildfire risk.
However, the coming expansion in nature-based climate investment requires innovative policy design and implementation, consideration of community impacts, an ability to evaluate success and cost-effectiveness, and attention to the market forces and incentives that can stimulate or inhibit climate progress. RFF research and policy engagement will tackle all these considerations, from various angles, in the months and years to come.