Center for American Progress

Public Lands Are the Source of More Carbon Pollution than They Can Absorb

Public Lands Are the Source of More Carbon Pollution than They Can Absorb

Public lands are a major source of carbon pollution, but this can change if we institute an appropriate emissions reduction plan.

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Spanning more than one-fifth of the U.S. landmass, America’s national forests, national parks, and other public lands have long been valued for their ability to absorb and store carbon and other air pollutants. “Forests,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

Yet rather than fulfilling their natural role of absorbing carbon and balancing the carbon cycle, public lands have become one of the largest sources of U.S. carbon emissions as a result of fossil fuel extraction. In fact, public lands in the continental United States are contributing nearly 4.5 times more carbon to the atmosphere than they are currently able to absorb. The extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands—and their subsequent combustion in power plants, vehicles, and other energy-consuming activities—is the primary cause of this imbalance.

To address this growing problem, we propose a carbon-emissions reduction plan for public lands that, using a range of tools already available to land managers and the administration, would:

  • Increase public lands’ ability to naturally sequester carbon
  • Decrease carbon pollution from fossil fuels extracted from public lands

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