Guest column: Solar Energy? Yes! Deforestation? No!


Monday, October 04, 2021

The latest climate report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raised the alarm over the accelerating climate emergency to the highest level yet.

A global average temperature rise of more than a dangerous 1.5°C is already locked in, whatever we do. Under all scenarios, we will likely cross this limit within the next decade or two. The only reasonable hope for a livable future is to act now to eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and to remove vast quantities from the atmosphere. If we do both — stop making things worse and start making them better — it is still possible to pull global temperature back to a relatively safe level after exceeding 1.5°C for a brief period.

Very large, immediate and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are essential. This requires a rapid switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, including a dramatic build out of solar power. At the same time, we must also protect our forests and other natural carbon sinks to the fullest extent we can, as these are the only means we currently have to capture and store carbon at any significant scale. The IPCC reports that natural carbon sinks alone are likely insufficient to stabilize the climate and that new technology will also be needed, but there is no doubt that failure to protect natural carbon sinks will guarantee a more dangerous future.

Forests are also needed to address another global crisis we now face: the loss of biodiversity at rates that far exceed those of the recent geological past. Forests are the coral reefs of the land in terms of the remarkable living diversity they support. Protecting them from further degradation is of critical importance for a well-functioning biosphere and our own survival.

Astonishing amounts of energy reach the earth from the sun every day. It is estimated that covering a mere 0.3% of the land surface with solar arrays using existing technology could supply all the energy that humans now use. Given its location and variable weather, Massachusetts would need several times that much in order to be self-sufficient but still only a small fraction of total land area.

We don’t have to give up forested land that sequesters carbon, nor the agricultural land that sustains us. The great bulk of our needs can be met with arrays installed on parking lots, south-facing roofs and walls, as well as land already degraded by landfills or industrial pollution. In fact, more than enough land is already occupied by the fossil fuel industry.

Some argue that replacing forests with solar arrays is a net positive for the climate because solar arrays decrease CO2 emissions (through the reduced use of fossil fuels) by an amount that is larger than the amount that would have been removed from the atmosphere if the forest had been allowed to continue growing. But this is a misleading way to frame the problem. For one thing, this advantage evaporates unless each additional increment of solar power is matched by an actual reduction in fossil fuel use. Merely increasing the supply does nothing to reduce emissions. More importantly, emission reduction and CO2 removal are both needed, so it is wrong to argue that one can replace the other. Trading off one necessity to gain another is like sacrificing your liver to save your heart.

A growing threat to forests in our region is the complete removal of forest cover to install ground-mounted solar arrays on an industrial scale. This unnecessary destruction is promoted by direct government subsidies that often end up in distant corporate coffers. It would be far better to use our limited tax dollars to help local communities become more resilient and better able to take care of themselves. Local individuals, businesses, and cooperatives deserve help to weather the tough times that surely lie ahead because of our inexcusably feeble response to the climate emergency.

Given the planetary crises that now confront us, climate mitigation and biodiversity protection are of critical importance. But deforestation results in the loss of many other benefits as well. Some of you may especially value the mental well-being and spiritual replenishment that forests provide, others the joys of experiencing nature through outdoor recreation, and still others the economic returns from an ongoing supply of wood products. Whatever forest benefits matter most to you, they are all eroded by forest loss. Please join me in supporting a moratorium on large-scale solar installations at https://www.savemassforests.com/action-large-scale-solar/

Bill Stubblefield is a climate activist, trained biologist and nature lover residing in Wendell.