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A path runs through a dense forest. James O'Neil / Getty Images

By Austyn Gaffney

Wayne Brensinger, 63, has spent his entire life exploring Deer View Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. From an early age, he hunted squirrels and deer, drank clean spring water, and meandered down game trails through 500 acres of Northern Appalachian woodlands, with just 25 acres cleared for corn and soybeans. The property, in his family for over 150 years, was an idyllic place to grow up and raise his own children.

By Austyn Gaffney

Wayne Brensinger, 63, has spent his entire life exploring Deer View Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. From an early age, he hunted squirrels and deer, drank clean spring water, and meandered down game trails through 500 acres of Northern Appalachian woodlands, with just 25 acres cleared for corn and soybeans. The property, in his family for over 150 years, was an idyllic place to grow up and raise his own children.

Brensinger just assumed the trees would always be there; he didn’t have a plan for how to manage them long term. Then came the gypsy moths.

Dotted with blue and red circles down their backs, the bristly gypsy moth caterpillars chewed through the leaves of 250 acres of hardwood trees, including an estimated 1,250 of Brensinger’s favorite tree, the white oak, and over 7,500 chestnut oaks. The damage cleared the way for invasive species. Ferns and stilt grass, accompanied by the fast-growing saplings of birch and gum trees, took root and shaded out other valuable seedlings.

“They came in and just ate all the trees,” said Brensinger. “We had some large die-offs due to those caterpillars.”

Only half his woods remained. Brensinger hired a forester for the first time, and together they created a forest management plan ― a road map for the continual care of his forest. They applied herbicide and replanted ravaged trees, and his woods have started to rebound. But it will take over 60 years of continual management for the new, younger trees to grow to the maturity of the ones killed.

Brensinger’s struggle is far from unique, it’s hard to maintain healthy forests especially as the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced.

“Family forests face numerous threats, amplified by climate change, including invasive pests, pathogens and a legacy of unsustainable forest management,” said Josh Parrish, director of working woodlands for the The Nature Conservancy, an environmental non-profit. Forest owners need support and resources to tackle these, he added, not just for their own benefit but because their trees represent a vital weapon in the fight against climate change.

Forests are natural carbon sinks, soaking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, and research shows that improving the stewardship of woodlands is one of the most effective tools for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Today, forests blanket 766 million acres of the U.S., and 38% of these woodlands ― more land than California and Texas combined ― are owned by families and individuals. There are more than 20 million of these private owners, and according to the nonprofit American Forest Foundation, their family forests alone store an estimated 14 billion tons of carbon ― equivalent to the emissions of 12,000 coal-fired power plants.

They could store much more.

Conservationists have identified these private woodlands as one of the best routes to increasing carbon storage in the U.S. Forests currently offset 11.3% of the nation’s annual carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But they have the potential to offset around 20%, the American Forest Foundation says, if conservation programs are implemented.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recognized the untapped value: His company is putting the first million of its 0 million Right Now Climate Fund ― an initiative aimed at removing carbon from the air ― toward family forest preservation.

In order to manage their forests in sustainable ways ― culling invasive species, cultivating mature trees and fighting pests ― many families need help. It requires a lot of work, expertise and financial outlay, which family owners can’t always pull together.

“The first thing they need is a forest management plan, and less than 15% of forest owners in Pennsylvania have a plan,” said Parrish.

Many family owners generate income by selling trees to loggers. But loggers often want to buy older trees and are willing to pay more for them ― a practice called “high grading.” Selling off too many mature trees, however, shortens the lifespan of a forest and lowers its carbon capturing powers. In Northern Appalachia, where Brensinger is based, unsustainable logging is one of the biggest hindrances to cultivating healthy forest lands.

But there is another avenue to make money that conservationists say can both help owners maintain healthy forests and maximize their potential to tackle climate change: carbon offsets. Previously, only large commercial landowners and federal or state governments have had easy access to carbon markets, but now there is a new focus on bringing in smaller family-owned forests, too.

The idea of carbon offsets is simple: Carbon emitters purchase “credits” to offset their emissions, essentially paying someone else to remove carbon from the atmosphere in their place ― through actions such as protecting wildlife habitats or planting trees. The credits are popular because they allow countries and corporations to continue to emit and still remain within legally binding caps on carbon emissions. Global carbon markets are now worth around 4 billion.

In order to qualify to sell credits, forest landowners typically have to pay a forester to calculate the carbon in every tree on their property, which can cost upwards of 0,000. Then, sustainability standards programs like Verra determine what additional carbon storage could be obtained through conservation efforts over and above what the owner is already doing.

It’s this additional carbon storage ― from not logging mature trees or not selling a portion of the forest to developers ― that is meant to be sold as offsets. The goal is to ensure that carbon polluters aren’t trying to offset their emissions with practices that landowners were already implementing anyway.

“Existing healthy forests are the status quo,” said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist and co-director of the University of California’s Berkeley Forests. “We need to improve the situation by capturing more carbon and holding it.”

The carbon offset process is long and complex. Plus, landowners entering the carbon market typically need huge swaths of forest ― roughly 1,500 acres ― to draw the interest of offset buyers. Family forest owners have an average of 67 acres.

To help these small forest owners capture additional carbon from their properties and enter the carbon marketplace, the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have started a program to aggregate the offerings of small, family-owned properties.

Called the Family Forest Carbon Program, it aims to sell carbon credits to companies based on those bundles of acres and to pay landowners annually from the proceeds. In March, the program’s pilot effort opened applications for landowners in six rural Pennsylvania counties.

Bypassing expensive methods of measuring a forest’s carbon storage ― like going tree by tree ― the organization developed a system that estimates carbon capture potential based on the overall health of the forest. It provides landowners with instructions on how to improve forest health based not on a costly assessment of their land, but on knowing what it takes to have a healthy forest in their particular part of the country.

For example, owners in the West might be advised to reduce a forest’s vulnerability to wildfire by clearing debris and overgrown vegetation. In Pennsylvania, that advice would cover timber management practices, including high grading, which can damage the forest ecosystem by taking away important species, reducing both diversity and density.

The Family Forest Carbon Program hopes to persuade owners to forgo the short-term cash boost of high-grading by paying 20% of the “opportunity cost” of preserving mature trees for a more diverse harvest later on. The scheme will also foot roughly 60% of the cost of treatments that remove competing vegetation, like invasive species or overcrowding saplings.

Initially funded by a mix of foundations, companies and the U.S. Forest Service, the program received a multimillion-dollar injection from the Right Now Climate Fund this month, making Amazon its largest supporter. “Amazon’s investment in the Family Forest Carbon Program showcases the significant role family-owned forests can play as a climate mitigation solution,” said Christine Cadigan, director of the program at the American Forest Foundation.

The pilot had an initial goal of partnering with 100 family forest owners, together owning roughly 9,000 acres, by the end of the summer. By 2021, they hoped to roll out a larger pilot, banding together 1,000 landowners across Pennsylvania and expanding into western Maryland and West Virginia. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the mini-pilot has been put temporarily on pause.

But even without COVID-19, creating carbon credits is a challenging enterprise. While offsets have become a multibillion-dollar market, they’ve remained a controversial way to mitigate fossil fuel emissions.

One problem is “leakage,” when storing carbon in one area simply leads to it being released in another. For example, while landowners in an offsets program may harvest less timber, the same quantity of wood may just be harvested elsewhere if the demand for wood products doesn’t change. In California, a research paper found that around 80% of the offsets purchased for its statewide carbon program leaked in another location.

Programs must also address permanence. In traditional forest programs, this means offsets are purchased on the premise that the carbon will be sequestered from the atmosphere for at least 100 years. The Family Forest Carbon Program says that while it aims to partner with landowners for shorter contracts, between 10 and 30 years, it plans to have enough landowners participating so that carbon storage will be ongoing across the region, and eventually the nation. If a contract expires with one landowner, other forests will still be under contract or coming under contract.

Still, forests are inherently risky carbon containers, said Barbara Haya, a research fellow for the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at UC Berkeley. Climate change is causing a tremendous loss of forest carbon. Increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires as well as warmer weather ― which leads to more disease and pest outbreaks, like Brensinger’s gypsy moths ― are destroying huge swaths of forestland.

“Drawing carbon out of the atmosphere with trees is never equal to, and it never truly offsets, our emissions from fossil fuels,” Haya warned. While managing forests for carbon sequestration is something landowners need to do, she said, “it in no way takes the place of reducing our fossil fuel emissions as quickly as we can.”

The less quantifiable value of projects like the Family Forest Carbon Program might lie in their ability to change the way society views forests, from the appraisal of what is removed to the embrace of what an intact forest can offer.

Parrish, the Nature Conservancy official, pointed to the “co-benefits” of carbon sequestration: protecting wildlife habitat for birds, mammals and amphibians; preserving the landscape with edible foraging and conservation hunting; and promoting recreation. These co-benefits can help sustain a forest owner’s dedication to woodland management ― a dedication that Parrish, who manages 150 wooded acres in Pennsylvania, hopes to pass on to his daughters.

“A couple years ago I started thinking about legacy and thinking about when my two girls someday have the property and own it,” said Parrish. “I want to make sure there are more tools around that can help them essentially understand the complexities around forest management and have the right tools to make the right decisions.”

This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Amazon and other tech employees walk out during the Global Climate Strike on September 20, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. Karen Ducey / Getty Images

By Sarah Sax

At the end of February, thousands of cleaning workers in Minneapolis marched in what's believed to have been the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States. The protesters, many of them immigrants and people of color who have seen their communities harmed by everything from air pollution to drought, wanted their employers to take action on climate change.

By Sarah Sax

At the end of February, thousands of cleaning workers in Minneapolis marched in what’s believed to have been the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States. The protesters, many of them immigrants and people of color who have seen their communities harmed by everything from air pollution to drought, wanted their employers to take action on climate change.

Employed by more than a dozen subcontractors, these workers clean corporate buildings that are home to major companies like Wells Fargo and United Health Group. Their demands ranged from a guarantee of more environmentally friendly cleaning products to funding for a “green technician janitorial training program,” which could help them push for more substantial changes during their day-to-day operations rather than wait for top-down measures.

Employee activists like those in Minneapolis are on the rise. And unlike the traditional union focus on better pay, benefits and working conditions, they’re pushing for something even bigger ― for companies to align with their values when it comes to one of the world’s biggest issues. Namely, climate change.

As public concern about global warming has risen, companies had already come under pressure from investors, shareholders and consumers to adopt more ambitious climate-related targets for their operations and products. But now that pressure is also coming from within. A recent survey of 375 global executives found that 4 out of 5 companies expect an “unprecedented rise in workplace activism” over the next three to five years ― with sustainability and climate change an increasing concern.

While strikes and walkouts may still be the most high-profile forms of employee protest, workers are also taking their efforts online and connecting with those in other departments to amplify their voices. In November, thousands of Google employees signed a letter circulated online demanding that the company take more aggressive action on climate change.

Physical protests with signs and chanting workers are obviously not wise during the COVID-19 crisis ― and more immediate concerns like health and job security are likely taking priority ― but employees’ climate demands have not disappeared.

“I don’t think [the coronavirus pandemic] will halt employee activism. Not being prepared for a major crisis like COVID-19 has demonstrated how ill-prepared we will be for extreme weather events due to climate change,” said David Levine, co-founder and president of the American Sustainable Business Council.

Climate activists and advocacy organizations hope this new wave of activism from inside companies, driven largely by millennials, could be the key to getting businesses to do more than just “green” their operations. It could force companies to support ― rather than oppose ― serious government action on climate change or else risk losing valuable employees.

“We need companies to be really ambitious in what they’re doing in their operations. And we need employees to push them to be more ambitious in that work,” said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive who now runs the nonprofit advocacy group ClimateVoice, which pushes companies to go “all in” on climate change issues.

“But the thing that we really need them to step up and do,” Weihl said, “is add their voice on the side of science-based climate policy everywhere.”

Corporations Speaking Out

Advocates like Levine and Weihl argue that in the absence of U.S. leadership on the federal level, companies need to step to the front on climate change.

In 2015, nations agreed to limit temperature rise this century to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) under the Paris climate accord. Since then, the number of Fortune 500 companies pledging to reduce their carbon emissions has quadrupled, according to a 2019 report from the consultancy firm Natural Capital Partners ― with employee demands identified as a key driver behind much of this corporate action.

Microsoft and Google parent company Alphabet, for instance, recently made climate pledges in part prompted by employees demanding more action.

But according to Weihl, the companies leading on climate tend to focus on their own operations, while remaining almost entirely silent on the bigger public policy changes that are needed. There is a political risk in speaking out. Without public policy changes, however, “we are not going to decarbonize anywhere near fast enough,” he said. And if other companies don’t get involved, Weihl added, “that means the energy companies that are pushing in the wrong direction will continue to dominate the discussion.”

Over the next decade ― the timeframe that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is crucial for avoiding catastrophic global warming ― corporate action will need to focus not only on operational measures like installing more solar panels but also on pushing for smart, science-based climate policy. Fred Kruger, president of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, implored CEOs in an open letter last year to “unleash the most powerful tool they have to fight climate change: their political influence.”

Employee activism is critical to driving this shift, Weihl said.

He contrasts it with consumer activism. “If a company has 10 million customers, you have to move a lot of people before the company really notices and cares,” he said. But most companies have far fewer employees than that ― which means smaller numbers of workers speaking up can have a big impact. Throw in the need for companies to recruit and retain employees, and workers’ voices become that much more powerful.

Engaging With Employees

Perhaps no company’s employee activism has been more in the spotlight recently than Amazon’s.

Last September, along with several other corporations, Amazon made its “climate pledge,” committing to net zero carbon by 2040 and 100% renewable energy by 2030, ahead of a massive planned employee walkout. Then in February, the online giant announced a billion fund to fight climate change.

While broadly supportive of CEO Jeff Bezos’ pledge and the climate fund, employees continue to push Amazon to embrace climate action across its entire business, protesting its role in providing oil companies with the technology to find drillable oil faster and in funding climate change denial groups. The relationship between Amazon and its employees remains contentious, as criticism rises over its response to both climate change and working conditions during the pandemic.

In April, the company reportedly fired two employees who had been outspoken about climate change. During a virtual webcast organized by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice on April 16 ― which the company reportedly tried to thwart ― the two urged their former co-workers to stage a virtual walkout to protest their firings and the treatment of warehouse workers amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Some companies have been proactive in accommodating their employees ― such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, which closed their shops for the Global Climate Strike last September ― but Amazon has done the opposite. It recently introduced a policy barring employees from publicly criticizing the company without prior approval.

When asked about the rise in employee activism and the firing of the two workers, an Amazon spokesperson told HuffPost that “we support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies.

“The price of ignoring or dismissing employee activism could be huge. According to a survey by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, employee activism could cost organizations up to 25% of their global revenue each year due to the disruptive nature of strikes and reputational damage leading to lost business.

“Today the purpose of a company has to align with climate change and employees are calling really strongly for that,” said Farid Baddache, the CEO and co-founder of the sustainability consulting and impact investing firm Ksapa.

The Future Workforce

Figuring out how to navigate a world in which employees expect businesses to operate with a purpose beyond the bottom line may not be easy for companies, but it is critical because this new wave of activism is connected to the shifting demographics of the workforce.

Millennials now make up over a third of the U.S. workforce, constituting the largest share of any generation. They are more likely than older generations to be employee activists, according to one survey by Weber Shandwick. And according to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Report, 86% of millennials would consider taking a pay cut to work for companies whose values aligned with their own.

For Jake Elliott, 34, who specifically chose to work for Vermont solar power company SunCommon because the firm shared his values, climate change is “the number one most important thing.”

“When you look at global carbon emissions, the majority of carbon emissions are coming from businesses, so it is an obligation and requirement of business to address the climate crisis,” he told HuffPost.

Younger generations “don’t want to commit to work for a company that is contributing to climate change,” said Baddache, “or if they believe that the company is part of the problem rather than the solution.”

Corporate America is increasingly aware of this. “The talent Adobe wishes to recruit and retain expects us to set meaningful climate goals and work to meet them,” Vince Digneo, sustainability strategist at Adobe has said previously. “Our employees want to see us take good action but not just among a flurry of other companies doing the same thing ― it has to have a meaningful impact.”

This sentiment is true not just among current employees but also future ones. A group of law students at Yale and Harvard, for example, are boycotting internships with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison because it represents Exxon Mobil. They’re accusing the law firm of enabling the destructive impact of the world’s largest oil company in the climate crisis.

“Companies need to hire people and they need to retain people,” Weihl said. This will all become more difficult “if they are on the wrong side of an issue that many of their employees see as an existential threat to their future.”

This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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Janel Bodley tamps down soil around a freshly planted hemp clone at Wild Folk Farm in Benton. Ben McCanna / Portland Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

By Tom Levitt

The future of food doesn't have to include animals. At least that's what Miyoko Schinner believes. "A lot of farmers see us as a threat," Schinner said of her Californian plant-based dairy company, Miyoko's Creamery.

By Tom Levitt

The future of food doesn’t have to include animals. At least that’s what Miyoko Schinner believes. “A lot of farmers see us as a threat,” Schinner said of her Californian plant-based dairy company, Miyoko’s Creamery.

Experts have said we have to substantially reduce our meat production and consumption to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and improve population health. As people become increasingly aware of the environmental cost of raising livestock for food, plant-based diets are being embraced by the mainstream and alternative milks have gone from fringe request to flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, livestock farmers fear a war on their very ways of life.

But a change in tides doesn’t have to spell the end of meat and dairy farmers’ livelihoods, Schinner and others argue. She is among a wave of business owners intent on helping farmers transition to more environmentally friendly types of agriculture.

“We want to help bring farmers along with the change we think is necessary to tackle climate change and reduce the environmental footprint of farming,” said Schinner. She’s on the hunt for a dairy farm in California that will work with her company to ditch cows and grow plants for vegan products instead. Miyoko will provide financial support for the farm to convert to growing potatoes and legumes which the company will use to produce vegan cheese. The farm owner will also be paid for taking part in helping to research and development new plant-based products.

The Swedish oat-milk brand Oatly was one of the early corporate pioneers of this farmer transition movement when it began supporting a dairy farmer named Adam Arnesson to switch to growing more oats in 2017. Oatly used the oats to make a specially branded line of its milk and other animal-free dairy products. The company monitored the reduction in climate emissions from the farm as it completed the transition: Arnesson decreased his emissions and increased his profits.

“The big change is that we now can feed over 200 people with food on our farm compared to 60 when we started, and that our climate emissions have reduced to half per produced calorie,” said Arnesson, who is now part of a bigger Sweden-wide project focused on transitioning farmers towards more plant-based food.

He said his farm still had a small amount of livestock but a much greater diversity of crops now. “The challenge [for me] is to maintain a truly sustainable farm and of course include other important values like biodiversity, social and economic factors. I hope and believe more farmers will follow.”

Oatly said at the time it wanted to be a “catalyst” for helping farmers move away from animals to plant production, after having previously had a fractured relationship with the farming community in Sweden and around the world.

The project is changing perceptions of a company previously seen by some as “anti-farming,” Oatly’s sustainability director Carina Tollmar told HuffPost. “We’ve now got a new project helping 10 other farms diversify and had 100 farmers expressing an interest in being involved. It was a positive surprise that so many wanted to be involved with an Oatly project. We want to help farmers.”

Arnesson agreed: “Oatly is a very different food company, they are definitely interested in supporting the transition and they have been very important to me in sharing risks and offering long-term agreements,” he said.

Similar initiatives are cropping up across the U.S. The Certified Transitional program developed in part by Kellogg’s Kashi brand has been designed to support farmers to transition from conventional to organic methods of farming. Organic farmers are not allowed to use chemical pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones on their farms and no chemicals can be used on the land for three years before the farm can be certified organic. The program enables farmers to label their produce with a transitional mark in the meantime, which helps them claim a premium from the market to support their conversion.

Kick-starting their Transfarmation Project this May, the nonprofit Mercy for Animals will partner with a handful of companies (not yet named) to support factory-style chicken producers to shift away from animal farming. Half a dozen poultry farmers will be awarded money to convert the large barns in which they currently house thousands of birds so they can be used for growing hemp instead. The temperature-controlled chicken sheds present ideal growing conditions for hemp without the need for a costly change to the existing infrastructure.

The NGO is championing the success of former chicken farmer Mike Weaver in West Virginia, who is now using barns that formerly housed 45,000 chickens to grow industrial hemp. Weaver says, compared to raising chickens, his hemp plantation uses around half the water, employs five times as many people, and will be much more profitable once once he’s fully scaled up.

“The narrative is that we [animal rights and environmental campaigners] are coming in and taking away jobs and livelihoods,” Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, told HuffPost. “It is a very negative view. We just want to create a better and more compassionate food and farming system.”

It makes sense for farmers to get involved with changes in the food system, said Sanah Baig, chief of staff at The Good Food Institute, given concerns about the contribution of livestock farming to climate change, as well as the growth in sales of alternatives to animal products. The global plant-based meat sector is predicted to be worth billion by 2030, a huge jump from sales of less than billion in 2018.

“Diversification has always been a fact of life for farmers as markets and consumer preferences have evolved,” Baig told HuffPost. “Now, they increasingly have to think about how they can maximize the land, resources, labor and markets they have access to in order to keep their businesses thriving while also demonstrating that they can be a key part of the solution to climate change.”

It’s a lot for farmers to take on, which is why Miyoko Schinner wants to show both consumers and farmers that food companies can be friend, not foe, in making a transition to more planet and animal-friendly farming. “We want to help them take part in the new food economy,” she said.

This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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