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House Squabble Over Trillion Trees Shows Partisan Climate Divide

Feb. 26, 2020, 5:43 PM

Dueling partisan climate bills came before a House panel Wednesday, illustrating the parties’ radically different approaches for using public lands to address climate change.

Republicans want to plant 1 trillion trees as the centerpiece of their strategy. Democrats say that planting trees isn’t enough and that cutting fossil fuel use, particularly on federal lands, is far more important.

“All the trees in the world won’t stand a fighting chance if we don’t cut our fossil fuel emissions,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said during a hearing by the committee.

Grijalva’s solution is his American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act (H.R. 5435), which would require the federal government to manage more than 600 million acres of federal public lands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a way to address climate change.

That includes pausing all fossil fuel leasing on federal lands, promoting renewable energy development there, and studying how the U.S. can use public lands for carbon dioxide sequestration.

The bill, which has no GOP support, counters the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuels agenda, which is expediting oil, gas, and coal leasing and development on federal lands and waters.

Trillion Trees Tax Credit

The Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 5859), sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), is the Republicans’ answer to using public lands to tackle climate change. The bill aims to support a global tree-planting effort while bolstering the timber industry.

It would offer businesses a tax credit for reducing emissions related to transporting building materials to a construction site and for the amount of carbon stored in wood products used to build buildings, he said.

Trees grown for wood products naturally store the carbon they pull from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and the carbon remains stored in the wood building materials until they rot or burn.

“This policy will result in reduced carbon emissions,” Westerman said at the hearing. “What do you do with the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere? To me, trees are the answer to that.”

The measure has no Democratic support, and environmental groups oppose it.

Grijalva said after the hearing that he’s not ready to move the Trillion Trees Act anytime soon.

“I don’t see it as comparable in terms of dealing with the depth of the issue that we’re confronting,” he said. “I don’t want it to divert from the fact that this Congress has to make some tougher decisions.”

Scientists consider afforestation and reforestation—planting new trees and replanting forests that have been cut—two of many possible ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Removing carbon dioxide from the air, also known as creating “negative” carbon emissions, is essential to preventing global warming from exceeding levels that scientists consider catastrophic, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Overestimating Carbon Storage

But scientists warn that just planting trees can’t cut enough emissions to solve climate change. Fossil fuel emissions must be drastically cut as well.

Scientists have overestimated the amount of carbon that can be stored by planting trees and restoring forests, and logging for wood products could make climate change worse, Carla Staver, an associate professor of ecology at Yale University, said in her testimony Wednesday.

At most, afforestation and reforestation can store about four years’ of global carbon emissions, she said.

If Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—the most carbon dense forest in North America—is opened up to more logging to create wood products, “astronomical amounts” of carbon stored in the forest’s soil would be released into the atmosphere, Staver said.

Scientists, who estimate that there are 3 trillion trees living on Earth, also don’t know whether enough space exists to plant 1 trillion more trees, Staver said.

Ninety-five groups, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice, sent a letter to the committee Tuesday opposing the Trillion Trees Act, saying it would dramatically increase logging to support the wood products industry.

“While we support ecologically sound tree-planting as a means to increase carbon sequestration and climate adaptation, this legislation presents a false solution for addressing the climate crisis by misallocating resources to focus on industrial logging rather than on urgently needed steep reductions of fossil fuel emissions,” they wrote.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Law is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloomberglaw.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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