We knew reforestation was helping capture more carbon. Now we know how much.
If you spend enough time around the forest products industry, talking to foresters and tree farmers, people responsible for managing supply chains, and people thinking about sustainability and corporate responsibility, you get a basic sense of the “story” of American forests over the last century-plus.
In essence, the turn of the 20th century (around 1900) was the apex of the “exploitation” of trees by a rapidly expanding and industrialized American economy. In other words, the caricature some people still have of the relationship between forests and the forest products industry—that the latter exploits the former—was closer to the truth. As Dennis Colley at the Fibre Box Association puts it succinctly:
At the start of the 20th century, there was an abundance of mature trees worldwide. Supply was readily available obscuring the need to replenish what was being used. As a result of a growing human population and increase in income, forests were cultivated into farmlands to feed the people, converted into timber to house them and used as fuel to keep them warm. With limited knowledge about the environment, the loss of trees and lack of replanting began to affect the greenhouse gas emissions of the planet during the early years of the 1900s.
But as we learned more—learned more science, more about the relationship between forests and climate, and about what it would take to create a sustainable supply of fiber to meet the world’s needs—that all began to change. At every level, both in the U.S. and around the world, people and organizations started demanding more responsible forestry and forest management, with an eye toward big, exciting concepts like reforestation, sustainability, circularity and zero waste.
The turnaround really started in earnest around the 1950s, and seventy years later we have significantly healthier forests than we did then. We know roughly that net forest area in the U.S. is now roughly where it was in 1900, and has even increased modestly—about two percent—in the last decade. And we know that we currently grow about twice as much wood each year as we harvest. But what was less precisely studied was the effect of that growth and reforestation on the carbon question.
An exciting paper from the Journal of Forest Economics (“The Net Carbon Emissions from Historic Land Use and Land Use Change” 2019) by scholars at Yale and Ohio State University has changed that.
Specifically, Professors Robert Mendelsohn and Brent Sohnge have calculated that since the early 1950s, 392 billion fewer tons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere than previously thought, thanks to reforestation efforts and tree plantings. The result is that, despite human-led deforestation (mainly permanent conversion of forest land to serve as farmland or for real estate development), our forests now capture more carbon than they did in 1900.
Our industry is proud of our part in that story, but we’re not taking a victory lap. There are still places around the world that operate closer to a 1900 mindset than a 2020 mindset, where sustainable forest management and replanting are not yet ways of life. And we know that there is more we can do, more we are doing, to boost those carbon sequestration numbers even further.
It’s going to be a huge priority for the Paper and Packaging Board in the coming years to tell our compelling tree story so we can help build markets and preference for paper over other materials. We want to make sure that both the businesses who make “paper versus plastic” purchasing decisions, and the ordinary Americans who use our products, understand that there is a critical difference between economic activity that can permanently deforest (clearing trees to grow cash crops, or converting forest for real estate development), and economic choices that actually incentivize people to do the right thing, preserving forestland for the long-term, with an eye toward circularity and renewability.
Having some clarity on the actual, tangible impact of that on carbon and climate change is a huge piece of the puzzle.