If you regard climate change as an issue worthy of your concern, you probably represent a minority in Arkansas. Stand tough, though. In Greenland (the proverbial canary in the mineshaft if ever there was one) the percentage of concerned believers is 92 percent.
Perhaps you have considered ways to reduce your own carbon footprint, even going beyond the obvious things, like changing the thermostat or cutting back on meat consumption. Perhaps you are considering paying extra dollars to buy an all-electric car to replace your sedan or to purchase energy-efficient windows for your home. These ideas cost more on the front end, but should lower your future outlay for gasoline or electricity, and will translate to less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
But let me suggest another investment you could make that could have a larger payout for the environment and, potentially, even for yourself and your children and grandchildren.
Buy scrubland in Arkansas.
Let me explain. Every serious plan for bringing carbon emissions into line involves two things: First, reduce the use of fossil fuels to essentially zero and then sequester (a fancy word for store away) additional carbon or carbon dioxide to bring the atmosphere back into line. Myriad proposals have been put forward to accomplish both of these goals.
Whether it churns your stomach or not, major legislation will almost certainly be necessary to make it happen. It seems unlikely to me that people will seriously modify their own consumptive behavior without a gradually escalating carbon tax that affects their pocketbook. Money generated from this tax will, or at least should be, used exclusively for further energy-conservation measures and sequestration.
Most methods for sequestering carbon are complicated and extremely expensive. For these, only a handful have reached the test scale, much less anything approaching the scale that will make a difference. The expected cost for these methods is typically over $100 per ton of carbon dioxide sequestered.
However, one approach to provide a significant level of carbon sequestration is unbelievably simple and right in our collective backyards. Stop deforestation and increase reforestation. The net difference defines how much carbon dioxide can be sequestered. This is where Arkansas is well-positioned to take advantage economically. Practically every acre in Arkansas has the potential to grow trees and, heaven knows, there are literally millions of acres of immature forests (scrub-land) and economically questionable pasture or cropland in Arkansas.
The amount of carbon dioxide that a mature forest can sequester per year is impressive. Dr. Timothy Fahey from Cornell University has estimated that an acre of mature oak forest can sequester up to 4 tons of carbon dioxide per year. This estimate can, and does, vary depending on the maturity of the forest, the mix of tree species, how the forest floor is considered, and whether an accounting is allowed for selectively harvesting the oldest trees for building materials.
Even at the lowest estimates, usually in the range of at least 2.5 tons per acre, converting about 10 acres of scrubland or pasture to a mature forest could completely offset the carbon dioxide impacts of a typical resident of the United States. With the more generous estimates, your footprint could be offset with only a few acres. It is simply not possible to accomplish that feat through conservation or personal sacrifice.
With reforested land, you also hold out the potential for a significant return on investment. That potential becomes a virtual certainty if it is measured in terms of legacy, wildlife, and clean air.
Several companies are already beginning to voluntarily purchase carbon credits to offset their carbon footprint. Some even claim to be carbon-neutral. If the funds from a carbon tax become available and are spent wisely, the demand for mature forestland, which could be set aside and sold as carbon credits, will possibly inflate dramatically.
Nearly all organic matter grown from trees will eventually return to carbon dioxide. Forests do not represent a panacea, but certainly offer significant mitigation of impacts over the next 10 to 100 years. Many scientists believe this is the most threatening time frame as we transition to a carbon-free energy society.
Until legislation is enacted, there will be costs to the owner for management of the trees and for local taxes. And there will be risks, although Arkansas is expected to see increasing rainfall. This should lower the risks of fire and drought, which are not particularly high in Arkansas anyway. For purposes of carbon sequestration, the impact from tree diseases can be mostly reduced by encouraging a diverse mix of trees.
The riskiest part of such a monetary investment is that the legislation may never materialize and we will simply deal with the consequences of climate change. In that case, if scientists are correct, you or your heirs might be able to sell the land at an inflated price to a traumatized refugee from a coastal area. That scenario should not give you satisfaction, only pause.
Rex Robbins, P.E., is an environmental engineer who lives in North Little Rock. He and his wife own 50 acres of forested land in the Buffalo River watershed.
Editorial on 11/15/2019
Print Headline: Build a forest