Foreseeing the Forests and the Trees

The Obama Administration has turned making adjustments to baseline projections into something of an art form.  When you’re trying to achieve an unachievable goal while convincing people it won’t be that difficult, I guess that’s to be expected.

We’ve already seen how EPA altered its “business as usual” projection of the power sector to lower the compliance cost estimates of its Clean Power Plan (here, for example). The most recent instance is in the latest U.S. submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The 2016 Second Biennial Report of the United States of America, which explains how the administration plans to meet its 2025 goal of cutting net greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% from the 2005 level.

In a future post, we’ll be taking a closer look at this report and see what is means for the “gap” between the president’s 2025 goal and the policies needed to meet that goal. But the focus of this post is on the administration’s new and improved projections of LULUCF—land use, land use change, and forestry.

Forestry and land use can emit carbon dioxide through such activities as cutting down forests or plowing fallow land. The vast majority of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, for example, are related to large-scale deforestation in the Amazon.

The LULUCF sector in the United States, in contrast, acts as a carbon dioxide “sink,” meaning that on balance our forests and land absorb more carbon dioxide than they release, thus offsetting carbon dioxide emissions from other sources. In 2013 (the most recent year of data), U.S. sinks—primarily forests—removed an estimated 880 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (TCO2) from the atmosphere. As a result, our net greenhouse gas emissions were just 5,790 million TCO2 in 2013 compared to gross emissions of about 6,675 million TCO2. Obviously, these sinks have a big influence on U.S. emissions, and they can be tricky to estimate.

Which brings us to the 2016 Second Biennial Report. It estimates that sequestration from LULUCF will reach between 910 million to 1,055 million TCO2 in 2025. Just two years ago, however, in its United States Climate Action Report 2014, the administration was predicting a sequestration range in 2025 of only about 575 million to 920 million TCO2.

This works out to an average increase in the sequestration estimate for 2025 of 42%, or 310 million TCO2. For those of you keeping score, 310 million TCO2 is about 17% to 18% or so of the entire amount (about 1,675 to 1,800 million TCO2) needed to meet the president’s 2025 goal. Just like that, a big chunk of the reductions needed is met. Poof.

How does the State Department explain this? “Over the past two years, the U S government has made significant strides in improving data and modeling of emission trends in the LULUCF sector. A multiagency effort was initiated following the First U.S. Biennial Report in 2014. This effort resulted in a number of immediate improvements that will be included in the 2016 U S GHG inventory, as well as additional improvements that are being developed and will be included in subsequent Inventories. [citation omitted]”

But two years ago the State Department was warning in its 2014 report, “Viewed collectively, the [Resources Planning Act] Assessment results highlight several long-term anthropogenic and natural forces that, absent changes in policy, demographic, or economic conditions, may act to diminish and, over time, possibly eliminate the U.S. forest carbon sink. [emphasis added]”

In other words, at the beginning of 2014 the administration warned that ability of U.S. forests to gobble atmospheric carbon dioxide was at risk of being significantly reduced if not eliminated entirely, but now the administration is arguing that the trees will have much healthier appetite for carbon dioxide. Just when the administration has been taking fire for falling short of its commitments. How convenient.

It’s also worthwhile pointing out that the other big difference in the greenhouse gas emissions projections in the 2016 report versus the 2014 report is a decline of 325 million TCO2 in the estimate of energy-related emissions for 2025. No surprise here as the 2016 report’s forecast includes the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) final rules governing carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing fossil fuel-fired power plants.

What’s interesting is that the estimated decline in emissions attributed primarily to a huge and costly EPA regulatory program is of the same magnitude as the increase in sequestration attributed to improved “data and modeling of emission trends in the LULUCF sector” (325 million versus 310 million TCO2).

After a while, one begins to wonder: If all of these emissions reductions are going to happen anyway, what’s the point of regulating?