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Achieving Net-Zero Climate Targets Will Depend on Public Lands • The Revelator

Achieving Net-Zero Climate Targets Will Depend on Public Lands • The Revelator

oil drilling

To slow climate change, we’ll need to not just cut emissions, but sequester them. And for that we’ll need to protect healthy ecosystems, experts say.

Federal climate policy seems to have been awakening from a four-year sleep since the beginning of the Biden administration. However, 2017 is not the same year. The planet is heating up, 57 million acres have been burned in the USA, and the global carbon budget has become more tight than ever.

But there’s good news. Even though the Trump administration tried to destroy national climate policies and a growing number local, state, as well as private-sector actors, they found ways to lead at their home.

Our latest research, conducted at the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, shows how these “subnational” actors have kicked off a new era of climate action. The majority of Americans live in areas that aim to achieve net-zero emission by mid-century or earlier.

Without coordination from D.C., the push for net zero cannot go far.

In their current form, subnational goals have wide discrepancies in the way states choose to pursue and measure net zero. Oregon could buy electricity from a Idaho-based coal-fired power generation plant. Should Oregon consider these emissions its own? Idaho? What if the coal was from Wyoming? A lack of consistency could lead to double counting — or worse, not counting at all.

These targets do not address a significant gap within the fabric of subnational climate actions: Emissions that originate from the one-quarter of U.S. land owned and managed by federal governments.

A stunning 23% of the nation’s greenhouse gases can be traced directly to public lands. Many of these emissions result from the extraction of fossil fuels through leases issued to the Bureau of Land Management. The federal property of the states is subject to limited oversight, even if it is within their borders. The terms of oil and gas leasing, mining permits, and logging are set by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.

oil drilling
BLM land in Utah is being used for oil drilling. (Photo by Wild Earth Guardians. CC BY -NC-ND 2.0.

Recent attempts to regulate emissions from federal government permitting and leasing programs were thwarted by climate obstruction ByThe federal government. The American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act would have required federal lands to reach net zero by 2040, but it never received a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress in 2019. As a result, states — especially those in the West with large swathes of public land — remain limited in their ability to meet their own decarbonization targets.

Public lands can be both a challenge and an opportunity. The United States already stores approximately 250 million tons of carbon dioxide annually on its public lands. The most important role in absorbing this carbon is played by the restoration of forests and other natural ecosystems, as well as protecting biodiversity and ecological resilience.

Today these carbon sinks give the United States the equivalent of a 4% rebate on the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That might sound small, but it’s greater than the annual emissions from every commercial flight in the country.

As emissions start to decline, the amount carbon sequestered in public lands will decrease. Our actions as stewards will determine the future of these landscapes. Net zero is the goal of ensuring that every ton CO is captured.2One ton of carbon dioxide is released each year, and another ton is reabsorbed into the earth. A large portion of those negative emissions has the potential to come from America’s public lands, but forests will not regrow in the course of a single night or even one election cycle.

Recognizing this opportunity is crucial to communicate that public land is more than just valuable for extraction and logging. The more we can protect public lands to ensure they’re carbon sinks rather than sources, the easier it will be to reach net zero by 2050.

In January, the Biden-Harris administration made a significant step in this direction when it issued a temporary moratorium for new fossil fuel leases on public land. The administration has not yet provided guidance on whether or not this temporary moratorium will be extended and how it plans to handle existing leases.

Congress began to debate the matter even more recently. CLEAN Future ActThe act would also commit the United States and Canada to net-zero emission by 2050. It also sets a goal to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. But the act doesn’t provide an explicit mandate to the Interior Department to align the actions of the BLM with the needs of a net-zero future. Unlike the American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solutions Act, the CLEAN Future Act doesn’t require federal and state actors to come together and plan to reduce emissions and sequester carbon on public lands.

With this omission Congress risks making the common mistake of overlooking the federal government’s direct role in facilitating nearly a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

A new era of federal leadership will be required to align ambition with action. And if Congress is too gridlocked to act on climate, there’s every hope that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will be one of the nation’s most influential climate champions in the years to come.

Creating a net-zero strategy for the United States’ public lands would be an excellent place to start.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those made by others. The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.

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She is the net-zero policy engagement fellow from the University of Oxford, and a strategic adviser to the global Race to Zero campaign.



Gates scholar and PhD candidate at Cambridge, he manages the Oxford Programme for the Sustainable Future of Commodities & Infrastructure.



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