HAVING GROWN UP in the wooded suburbs of Boston, and then moved to the deep woods of the Adirondack and Green Mountains, I can be fairly accused of loving the forest—for its wildlife, for its beauty, for its recreational opportunities—and, on this overheating planet, for the fact that it sucks up carbon that would otherwise add to our global warming burden.
Many of the things we need to do to fight climate change will be hard, and some will be expensive. But a lucky few strategies are not only effective but also simple. In this case, a crucial solution requires only the stroke of a pen. Well, two strokes, for two bills that are pending in the Massachusetts Legislature, which can be implemented immediately and will not cost taxpayers a dime.
One bill is H.897, sponsored by Rep. Susannah Whipps, an Independent from Athol. The bill would designate all Massachusetts state conservation land as parks or reserves with protection similar to National Parks — where forest ecosystems are guided primarily by natural processes and carbon storage is optimized. The other bill, H.853, sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville, ensures that Massachusetts’ renewable energy subsidies are directed to truly clean energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal, rather than burning wood.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to limit catastrophic global warming we need to both drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years and draw down the excess carbon dioxide that has built up in the atmosphere. Trees are an important part of both sides of the equation. Put simply, to fight climate change, we need to stop burning trees and let them grow. And the latest science makes clear that the longer and larger they grow, the more carbon they suck up.
That’s why H. 897 would protect 610,000 acres of state lands — encompassing 20 percent of the state’s forests — as parks or reserves where forest ecosystems are guided primarily by natural processes, much like New York’s Adirondack Preserve or our National Parks. Having raised my family in the Adirondacks, I can tell you that this kind of protection is invaluable. This bill is the cheapest and quickest step the people of Massachusetts can take to maximize the storage of carbon in forests and help to mitigate climate change.
The second bill—H.853—may be even more important, because it takes on one of the biggest climate hoaxes perpetrated around the world. That’s the idea that burning wood for energy – aka biomass – is carbon neutral. In fact, burning wood fuels, whether to produce heat, electricity, or both, generates far more CO2 emissions than even the dirtiest fossil fuels, not to mention large quantities of fine particulates and other air pollutants that are hazardous to human health. While in theory, forest regrowth would eventually be able to absorb the carbon released from combustion, it would take decades to over a century to achieve parity with fossil fuel emissions – time that we do not have. Long before the forests ever grow back, the planet’s climate system will be broken for good.
Currently, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is seeking to expand subsidies for wood burning in Massachusetts’ ratepayer funded renewable energy programs. It is absurd to use dedicated clean energy funding to subsidize technologies that actually increase CO2 emissions and air pollution. H.853 would remove biomass eligibility from the state’s Alternative Portfolio Standard, which promotes renewable heating, and should be amended to remove biomass from the Renewable Portfolio Standard for electricity as well. This bill, which would ensure that these programs incentivize truly clean renewable energy, is a no brainer — and it should be acted upon immediately.
What stands out about these two bills is their simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and practicality. But unless they are reported out of committee by February 5, they will be dead for the year. Massachusetts lawmakers must act decisively to pass both bills now, because there is no time to lose.
Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College.
Due to an apparent transcription issue, the amount of forest protected by H.897 was originally stated incorrectly.