Republicans Grasp for Climate Credibility With Plan to Plant Trees

  • Feb 12, 2020
  • Greentech Media

Republican representatives unveiled the “Trillion Trees Act” on Wednesday, the first of what they are framing as a three-part climate plan expected to include later installments focused on clean energy and conservation.

The bill would compel the government to create domestic targets for new tree planting, with a goal of 1 trillion trees by 2050. A newly created task force would monitor progress. The bill also creates a tax credit for carbon storage in buildings and their materials.

The Trillion Trees Act represents an unusual Republican effort to frame legislation specifically around climate action — an indication of the increasing pressure on even conservative politicians to grapple with the issue.

Climate change is "no longer an issue that's off the table" for Republicans, said Sasha Mackler, director of think tank Bipartisan Policy Center's energy project, speaking Wednesday in New York.

"The types of perspectives and ideas that are being brought forward by the Republican caucus right now are different than how the Democrats are dealing with climate, but they’re at the table," Mackler said onstage at S&P Global’s Power and Gas M&A Symposium.

“Trees are the ultimate carbon sequestration device,” said Republican Representative Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who introduced the bill, in a Wednesday statement. “We have an obligation to conserve our resources and make them available to future generations, and I challenge anyone to find a better climate solution than taking care of our forests," added Westerman, a graduate of Yale University’s forestry school.

The American Conservation Coalition, a conservative-leaning environmental organization, called the bill “an exciting step in the right direction for the GOP.”

Still, the emphasis on sucking carbon out of the air and storing it, rather than negating emissions before they’re produced, makes the Republican bill more palatable to the fossil fuel industry and large energy companies. That dynamic has made environmental groups wary, even though they generally support the idea of planting more trees.

The bill was introduced without Democratic co-sponsors. Some environmental groups were unsparing in their criticism.

Focusing on planting trees rather than undertaking more aggressive measures like a large-scale transition to renewables “is like trying to put out a raging dumpster fire with a squirt gun,” said Greenpeace.

“We view it as a necessary but insufficient measure,” said James Mulligan, a senior associate at environmental nonprofit the World Resources Institute (WRI), ahead of the official release of the bill’s text.

“When you look at the whole range of things we also need to do to [keep global warming] to 1.5 or even 2 degrees, this is on the list. It's a long list,” Mulligan said.

Research from WRI found that the U.S. has the technical potential to add 60 billion trees over two decades, or 3 billion trees per year. Annually, that would sequester half a gigaton (500 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide. In 2019, the U.S. emitted 5,783 million metric tons, according to Rhodium Group estimates.

Efforts to get there would include reforestation, converting agricultural land and integrating trees into pasture land. Mulligan estimated costs at $4 billion each year for 20 years.

To reach that potential, he pitched a nationwide effort akin to the current residential solar industry.

“We have a private industry, private companies, marketing solar panels to homeowners and installing and maintaining them,” said Mulligan on a Tuesday call with reporters. “We can do the same with trees if the legislation is structured in a way that allows third-party intermediaries to participate."

WRI, however, emphasized the need for rigorous management of the program, referencing failed tree-planting initiatives in the past that didn’t adequately establish trees, allowing them to die off.

The introduction of the law dovetails with President Trump’s announcement at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland that the U.S. would join a global effort called the One Trillion Trees Initiative, which aims to draw down emissions through reforestation. The president later boosted that commitment during his State of the Union address in early February. Republicans hope to enshrine that commitment in law.

In January, Democrats unveiled a legislative framework that aims for a 100 percent clean economy by midcentury. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth have already criticized that plan as not stringent enough, in part because it allows coal and gas to count as "clean energy" as long as the plants come in under a certain measure of carbon intensity.

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