Why is this woman smiling? Janet Mills outside the UN. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
Why is this woman smiling? Janet Mills outside the UN. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
" Her “carbon neutral” by 2045 is called a “wimpy“ goal. And it’s possibly meaningless since we’re close or already there.  "
Our Confronting the End of Everything series discusses how, politically, Maine people could contribute to avoiding the environmental disasters facing them and the Earth. These human-caused disasters include global warming, a million species at risk of extinction, and the alarming decline in the number of insects and birds.

“History will judge the leaders of our age by how well we respond to this challenge.”  — Gail Kimbell, former chief, United States Forest Service, refering to climate change.

Gov. Janet Mills got a lot of attention when she stood before the United Nations General Assembly’s Climate Action Summit on September 23 and announced she had signed an executive order pledging Maine to become “carbon neutral” by 2045.

Problem is, it’s too easy a goal to achieve. We’re either close to it or already there. That’s because of our vast forest, which covers 89 percent of the state. The trees’ photosynthesis process absorbs carbon dioxide from the air.

Thus, Mills, a Democrat, laid out a “wimpy” goal, said Michael Kellett, head of the environmental group RESTORE: The North Woods, which for years has been pushing for a giant national park in the north country.

When so much needs to be done to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, Kellett suggested a better goal would be to maximize the use of Maine’s forest to absorb and — in forestry lingo — “sequester,” or trap, much more CO2 than it does now.

That could be accomplished by letting the trees grow instead of their being subjected to rapid, repetitive harvesting by the forest industry. On this subject, forestry-book author Mitch Lansky emailed me a simple rule: “What is in the forest is not in the atmosphere.”

(Technically, carbon neutral is when the state’s emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels — the chief global-warming “greenhouse gas” — amount to no more than the CO2 that Maine “subtracts” from the atmosphere, by trees sequestering it or by not producing it in the first place. “Gross carbon emissions minus the carbon we are sequestering,” is the definition the governor’s office said it’s using.)

Referring to Mills’s 2045 deadline, Kellett added that 25 years “is not an emergency response” to impending catastrophe.

Indeed, if environmental disaster is looming, shouldn’t state government act as if it is, with real goals and real means to achieve them on real timelines? That would constitute being “for real” on climate change.

Number crunching

In a future column I’ll deal more with what experts say is how Maine’s forest in the future could pull huge amounts of carbon out of the air — and keep it out. Here I want to discuss why Mills’s “carbon neutral in 2045” is a feeble goal and what that means politically.

To do this, we have to crunch three numbers.

First, a U.S. Forest Service report in 2016 gives 17.6 million acres as the extent of Maine’s forest. We have a larger percentage of forest than any other state.

Second, the U.S. Energy Information Agency says Maine’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016 from all sources — industry, cars, home heating, etc. — amount to 16.6 million metric tons per year. Because, comparatively, there’s not a lot of industry or people in Maine, we rank 45th of the 50 states in total emissions.

Third, using data from 2008 through 2016, Maine Forest Service forest-inventory specialist Kenneth Laustsen calculated that each year the average acre in our forest absorbs .725 of a metric ton of CO2 — a little more than seven-tenths of a ton.

Multiplying .725 of a metric ton per acre by the 17.6 million acres in Maine’s forest, our trees are absorbing and sequestering 12.8 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

Thus, annually, our forest is absorbing the equivalent of 77 percent of the emissions we produce (12.8 million metric tons of 16.6 million metric tons). When Lansky averaged emissions over several years, he got 86 percent.

Lloyd Irland, former state economist and a Ph.D. forester, commented on the strength of Laustsen’s calculations: “If Ken says this is what it is, then this is what it is.” The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Berry, its forest program director, agreed that Laustsen is “a trusted expert in the field.”

Now let’s ponder additionally all the trees (and other vegetation) in the 11 percent of Maine that is not forested — those in your backyard, on your street, in the town’s parks, etc. They, too, are sucking in CO2. Laustsen said he didn’t know of any study that tried to estimate how much they absorb.

However, adding in this non-forest CO2 sequestration could mean that Maine is already carbon neutral or better. At worst, the state is close to being so.

Some comparisons

If you start looking up the sequestration rate of forests in other places, they tend to vary and to be considerably higher than what Laustsen found for Maine. For example, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers says 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of “mature trees” absorbs 6.4 metric tons of CO2 per year. Using that rate, Maine’s forest would be absorbing over three times more CO2 than the state produces in emissions.

Ivan Fernandez, a professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and one of two scientific members of Gov. Mills’s new 39-member Climate Council, told me that the 6.4 metric tons-per-hectare sequestration rate “sounds like a reasonable estimate within the constraints of certain assumptions.” The main assumption in this case is big, old trees in Canada.

That fact suggests that there’s enormous potential for the young, heavily harvested Maine forest to suck up CO2 if it were allowed to grow to maturity, the point Michael Kellett and other environmentalists make.

For young trees, “There’s quite a big envelope for gain” in carbon as they grow, George Jacobson, former director of the Climate Change Institute, agreed. Even when they get old, trees can suck in carbon dioxide at a good rate simply because there’s a lot more to them exposed to the atmosphere.

Jacobson and other forestry experts whom I consulted cautioned, however, that the calculations can be complex. For one thing, as former Maine forestry chief Alec Giffen pointed out, only when harvested wood is used in certain ways will the carbon in the wood not be quickly released back into the atmosphere.

Using wood in construction, for example, locks the carbon into homes and other buildings for decades. Using it to generate electricity in biomass plants, to heat your home with a woodstove, or in the paper-making process quickly puts it back into the atmosphere.

The experts also frequently caution that, as Irland put it, “It’s just wrong to say the forest is doing the job for us” in terms of meeting the enormous challenges of global warming. So much more needs to be done.

But it’s clear that the preservation and best use of Maine’s and America’s great forests provide a significant part of the solution to our climate crisis.

Back to “climate neutral”

Now let’s go back to Janet Mills’s role in the climate crisis and her “carbon neutral by 2045” splash in the news.

Mark Berry of the Nature Conservancy, which is a careful-in-its-utterances environmental group, told me it’s possible “we could substantially exceed the goal of being carbon neutral by 2045.”

Even Mills’s chief energy aide, Hannah Pingree, co-chairperson of the Climate Council, admitted to the Maine Sunday Telegram that the state isn’t far from being carbon neutral, given the size of the forest and our small population.

In an interview, Pingree told me the 2045 date was arrived at by looking at other states that had set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and figuring that “we could do better” because of “some of Maine’s opportunities in carbon sequestration” with its forest.

Before moving up the date that climate neutrality could be achieved, however, she said an “inventory” of the forest’s ability to store carbon needs to be done, and that might take more than a year.

Why this bureaucratic delay? Irland, the forester and economist, reacted: “In two or three months you could do an update on the inventory.” Laustsen’s and others’ calculations have been done. And the weakness of the climate-change-by-2045 goal is plain to many.

“Janet Mills has good intentions,” RESTORE’s Kellett said, “but we need political leaders to stand up and tell people” what the real needs are to deal with global warming.

The real need is to contribute to reducing the amount of global CO2 going into the atmosphere as much as possible as soon as possible — not talk about “carbon neutral.” So, it’s hard to conclude that Mills is for real on climate change — at least, not yet.

Her reputation is as a centrist or moderate. The moderate approach to global warming spells disaster, according to climate scientists and other students of the issue.

Naomi Klein, best-selling author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” and the just-out “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” describes the moderate approach as, “The cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that’s always looking to split the difference.”

Should we split the difference on climate catastrophe?