Defining direction for a regional climate response

Picture of Mike Mertens

Mike Mertens

Vice President, Knowledge Systems

Photo Credit Nolan Calisch

Climate solutions are often presented from a global perspective, but what about our regional potential to draw down carbon via the natural systems in our own back yard?
We’re working hard to find out.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) detailing the inevitable impacts of climate breakdown — if we as a global society cannot curb emissions — was hard news, but not surprising news. The IPCC report draws on years of research to present the urgency of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also underscores how the magnitude of impacts under a 2 degree scenario compared to 1.5 degrees could be catastrophic for many systems — impacts that frontline communities in our region and across the world are already experiencing in the form of devastating wildfires, rising seas, reduced snowpack and extreme weather events.

The IPCC report spells out the immediate need to address the way we use energy, protect our land, and manage our resources; and that the changes required are “unprecedented” but not impossible. For us, the report exemplifies the need for a better understanding of specific actions that can reduce emissions at regional scales. Here at Ecotrust, we recently undertook a study that we hope will provide answers to the question so many in our region have been asking since the report was released: “What now?”

From data to action

In the Pacific Northwest, a growing number of land managers, policy makers, funders, and partners are aware that we inhabit a region with some of the world’s greatest capacity to drawdown carbon from the atmosphere. The IPCC report focuses on emissions reduction pathways, each of which emphasize the necessity for carbon recapture measures, including approaches such as afforestation and reforestation, land restoration, and soil carbon sequestration to constrain overall global warming past 1.5 degrees. But the report only emphasizes the need for recapture processes using generalized global averages to estimate how much different actions will contribute to climate change mitigation. Ultimately, different actions vary dramatically from one region to the next.

Our current study seeks to identify which specific land management activities have both the greatest potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change and help our working landscapes in the Pacific Northwest prepare for a future constrained by climate change. By compiling pre-existing research and models, with our experience in data science, economics, and spatial analysis, we’re able to stitch various pieces together and extrapolate in a level of detail that can spur action now.

Our approach

The project has three basic stages — data collection and alignment, modeling, and analysis. Currently, we are finalizing stage one, focusing primarily on aligning data from resources such as the USDA Cropland Data Layer and NRCS soils data for agricultural and grazing lands and USDA Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) and the National Landcover Dataset for forest lands.

In stage two, we will couple those data with existing publicly available tools that support forest and farmland management. One such tool, COMET-Farm, provided by NRCS and Colorado State University, estimates the greenhouse gas benefits of hundreds of conservation management practices including opportunities for avoided emissions and direct sequestration on various ag and grazing land soil types. Another publicly available tool, the Forest Vegetation Simulator, helps estimate carbon storage in trees through user defined management prescriptions.

While we have long leveraged these tools to create a nuanced picture of our region, our current aim is to identify a suite of management prescriptions at landscape scales — those that have the greatest chance of being adopted by land managers or owners while having the greatest benefits in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

A customized response

Aligning data and creating models with this level of variability is time-consuming work, but the power of the results are in its specificity. Farmers, ranchers and foresters in our region are making decisions every day about maximizing economic benefit while ensuring their forests and farms are viable for the long-term. Geographically-specific data on the potential for carbon recapture will hopefully make it easier to integrate drawdown principles into decision-making at the outset of both seasonal and long-range planning.

Time, alongside inaction from policy makers and “business as usual”, continues to up the urgency of our work. We know natural, working landscapes in the Pacific Northwest can be a powerful set of levers for carbon recapture. We just need to know, as quickly as possible, which levers we should be working together to pull.

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