As the climate crisis becomes more obvious to lawmakers and the population at large, corrective action starts with reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency. Unfortunately, we are already past the point where simply reducing emissions, even to net zero, will be enough to avert disaster. Section C3 of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report summary for policymakers states that all pathways that limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C require removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide, in addition to net-zero emissions. The degree to which this needs to be done depends heavily on how rapidly we can transition all sectors of the economy to net-zero emissions.

Reforestation and land restoration are among the cheapest methods to sequester carbon dioxide. A single tree can capture about 1 ton of carbon dioxide over a 40-year life. A new study published in the journal Science showed that a global tree planting campaign could absorb 2/3 of the carbon that humans have emitted into the atmosphere. The study also showed that there is enough land available for just such a tree-planting campaign without disrupting existing farming and urban areas. Partially reforesting areas such as grazing land would have a co-benefit for cattle and other grazing animals. The shade gives animals a place to relax away from the direct sun. China and India have already begun major reforestation efforts. It is time for the United States, led by community initiatives, to get into the game.

So how do we achieve a lofty reforestation goal? Surprisingly, individuals can play a tremendous role by reducing meat, dairy, and palm oil consumption. These reductions, coupled with economic incentives from industrial countries, will help to promote reforestation in the natural rainforest areas of Brazil, Argentina, and equatorial Asia. These areas can host a very dense tree population and sequester a tremendous amount of carbon. While these are two concrete examples of how individuals can provide essential help to combat climate change, these contributions can still feel disconnected from peoples’ daily lives and are often treated as a matter of personal choice. Preservation and restoration of local forested areas can provide a more connected and community-oriented approach to combating climate change.

So how do land trusts and communities engage? Land trusts have a significant role to play as stewards of good land use policy. Consolidating suburban sprawl, protecting existing forests, and restoring unused land to forests are all critical components to help build a natural carbon capture system. This includes supporting eliminating single-family zoning restrictions, minimizing low-density housing development, opposing the development of forested areas, encouraging the expansion of connected green and forested space, purchasing open land with the intent of reforestation, and protecting and maintaining the health of existing forested land.

Eliminating or reducing single-family zones encourages denser development, which can be cheaper to build and easier to service with public transportation. Multifamily and mixed-use zoning can turn neighborhoods that primarily serve as bedrooms for commuting workers into vibrant communities. This approach also has the potential benefit of creating more affordable housing to attract first-time homebuyers and younger families.

Preserving forested areas protects our existing large carbon sinks. Cutting down trees won’t necessarily result in the release of carbon, but it will prevent them from continuing their important role. Placing low-density houses on forested land makes them net-carbon emitters. By contrast, reforesting unused plots and consolidating housing to centrally located areas allows more land to be carbon negative, creates more social communities, and facilitates the possibility of better mass transit solutions. Supporting and connecting forested areas helps our wildlife populations to remain stable and promotes a healthy ecosystem.

These are just a few land-use ideas for which land trusts and their members can advocate. Land use in the United States must become more sustainable while it supports a growing population. It is important that we keep and protect the assets we have while rehabilitating land that is no longer effectively used for industry, agriculture, or appropriate housing. Successful and healthy land trusts should be stewards of all their communities’ lands, in addition to the parcels that have been explicitly entrusted to their care.

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