We always hear that everything’s bigger in Texas, but what about Alaska? It’s bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, and its forests hold almost half the living wood of the United States, while its marshes, bogs, and tundra comprise 63% of the country’s wetlands.

These ecosystems store massive amounts of carbon in their trees, soil, and peat, but no one knows how much is there – let alone how much will go up in CO2 as the climate changes over the next 20-50 years. That’s a challenge for US climate policy, because the forests, farms, and grasslands of the United States sponge up roughly 15% of the country’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. If that carbon sink shrinks, then US emissions could creep upwards – and the problem isn’t limited to Alaska.

How Uncertain are We?

Why Does it Matter?

“There’s a lot of debate around whether land carbon will continue to play this large role, or whether the sink will begin to decline,” says Emily McGlynn, a Senior Advisor on Renewables & Environment at Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends. “That uncertainty alone is deeply concerning.”

She hopes a new report, “Building Carbon in America’s Farms, Forests, and Grasslands: Foundations for a Policy Roadmap”, will help to reduce that uncertainty.

Co-authored by McGlynn, the report offers a detailed but accessible overview of the activities that impact land-based carbon stocks – from cattle-grazing and agriculture to forest management – as well as impacts beyond immediate human control – such as drought and flooding. It then looks to see what is known and what is unknown about the impact of these activities on land carbon, and it takes stock of current policy tools that can be leveraged to promote better land management. In the short-term, it calls for more coordination of data, and looks at opportunities to create value for landowners who manage their land to increase stored carbon.

The Alaskan Wildcard

Carbon Markets as Conservation Bridge

The report is part of an effort called the Land Carbon Policy Roadmap (LCPR) initiative, which Forest Trends launched last year to address the land carbon challenge.

The authors see carbon markets as boon to owners of managed forests interested in preserving their carbon stocks, and they call for greater integration of carbon pricing into conservation funding and clear protocols for the creation of climate bonds and other mechanisms that will draw private investment into the conservation.

“Current U.S. government programs to support private investment are focused on grants, loans, and loan guarantees, which can support project finance for projects that already have interested equity investors,” they write. “The barrier to be addressed is stimulating interest from more equity investors. Therefore, to attract investment, new policy should seek to create demand for land carbon and reduce the risk of financial return for any land carbon delivered in order to attract investment and allow projects to operate over the long term.”

The Next Steps: Plugging Gaps

The report sets a short-term goal of structuring existing data in a way that’s more accessible to policymakers – beginning by categorizing carbon gains and losses according to their drivers, so that policymakers will be able to better target their actions, and by providing more consistent accounting across the country and more clarity regarding uncertainties.

“We’ve identified a lot of policy options for addressing land carbon,” says McGlynn. “The question now is how to start setting priorities. Better data and targeted analysis can help us get there.”