The forest surrounds Moosehead Lake near Rockwood, Maine, on July 28, 2017. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Mainers learned earlier this year that the state is approximately 75 percent carbon neutral, based on a first-of-its-kind analysis of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions. But most of the credit for the carbon neutrality goes to Maine’s abundant forests, which capture and store carbon from the air.

The numbers come with a caveat, however, as they are outdated. So it’s possible the state could be even closer to reaching carbon neutrality, based on projections.

Maine is halfway through a four-year climate action plan to confront the effects of climate change, and the first priority is to reduce the greenhouse gasses that are emitted from burning fossil fuels. But it is currently not possible to see whether the actions pursued under the plan are helping achieve carbon neutrality because the next analysis of emissions is not expected until the end of 2023.

In the meantime, Maine is relying on data from seven years ago that were published in a report in July. The 9th Biennial Report on Progress toward Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goals, published by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, found that 75 percent of 2016 gross emissions are captured and stored by Maine’s environment.

While the report predates Maine’s current climate action plan, it gives a window into what the next analysis might show, as its projections suggest Maine is on target to be fully carbon neutral by 2045, as required by state law.

Carbon neutrality is achieved when a place balances its emissions to be equal to, or less than, the emissions that get removed through the environment’s natural absorption. The goal is for net zero greenhouse gas emissions to help reverse some of the effects of climate change, which is caused by high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere trapping heat that Earth otherwise would have radiated into space.

For the first time, the report quantified how much carbon Maine’s forests, fields and wetlands were sequestering, so the state could determine how many metric tons of emissions were being offset.

However, the state cannot rely on natural resources to become 100 percent carbon neutral in the coming years, scientists said.

“We’re not going to get to carbon neutrality naturally. We need to do the work and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Stacy Knapp, emissions inventory section manager at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Air Bureau.

Ivan Fernandez, a professor at the School of Forest Resources and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, agreed.

“Maine’s forests are not limitless. Neither is the amount of carbon that can be stored in forests,” Fernandez said. “At some point we will max out.”

But Fernandez is optimistic about the work of the state’s four-year climate action plan.

“I think we can honestly feel pretty good about where we’re at,” he said. “I’m kind of optimistic in the sense that we are finally fully engaged, and it’s not a simple task to reach carbon neutrality.”

Not just trees but forest products can store carbon, too.

Maine has achieved its carbon offsetting primarily through carbon sequestration in its forests or through harvested wood, and also by having a smaller population, according to Daniel Hayes, an associate professor at the Climate Change Institute and one of the scientists who quantified the carbon neutrality figure based on 2016 emissions.

The report also examined the sources of Maine’s emissions. Most — 91 percent in 2019 — came from the combustion and distribution of fossil fuels, according to the report. Transportation was the single largest contributor to those energy-related emissions.

Maine is also the most heating oil-dependent state in the country, with more than 60 percent of residential buildings using oil, according to the report.

The transition to clean energy, which includes a statutory goal of 80 percent clean energy by 2030, will be key to reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Maine Climate Council. It estimates that nearly half of Maine’s energy usage will be derived from renewable sources by the end of this year.

Converting energy sources from fossil fuels to solar, wind, biomass and hydro-electric is crucial, said Dominic Winski, a research assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

The transportation system also requires radical changes, Fernandez said. Switching to electric vehicles and converting heating systems off oil are “unquestionably the key strategies to reducing Maine’s greenhouse gas footprint,” he said.

Since the Maine Climate Council’s climate plan was launched two years ago, Maine has installed more than 82,000 heat and cooling pumps, put more than 8,500 electric vehicles on the road, and weatherized more than 9,100 homes and businesses.

The 75-percent carbon neutrality figure is a baseline. The DEP aims to publish the next report analyzing carbon neutrality toward the end of 2023, Knapp said.

“We’re all really anxious to see what this looks like two years from now, what the data looks like and what the results of the Maine climate action plan strategies are,” she said. “We won’t know how these strategies are working until we get there.”

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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Mehr Sher

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.