Week 22, June 1: Regenerative Forestry
This is one of the 26 segments of Guy Dauncey’s Climate Emergency: A 26-Week Transition Program for Canada. Excerpted by permission.
It is not our emissions as such that are causing the climate emergency: it is our accumulated emissions. Our world therefore faces not one but two climate challenges:
- Challenge #1: to reduce our annual human-caused atmospheric pollution emissions to zero.
- Challenge #2: to reduce the atmospheric burden of carbon to its pre-industrial level, from 900 to 600 Gigatonnes (Gt), where 300 Gt. of carbon equate to 1.1 trillion tonnes of CO. Such a reduction can be achieved by increased carbon sequestration in forests, farms, ranch lands, wetlands, peatlands and marine ecosystems, by the use of timber, hempcrete and other carbon-storing building products, and by technological means such as Climeworks with secure geological storage.
When a country announces that it will plant trees or protect forests to absorb its emissions it muddles the two challenges. Each country needs to reduce its emissions to zero AND contribute to sequestrating the excess carbon already in the atmosphere, based on its available land area. Terms such as ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero carbon’ confuse our thinking by wrongly implying that planting trees to capture carbon can offset the need to reduce emissions.
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The global land area is 150 million square kilometres. 20% is covered with snow and ice and 33% is desert, leaving 45% (67.5 million square kilometres) to sequestrate the surplus carbon. Canada has 10 million square kilometres of land, of which 50% is permafrost, so in an ecologically rational world we would be working to re-absorb 7.5% of the 300 gigatonnes of surplus atmospheric carbon over the next 100 years, or 225 million tonnes a year, which illustrates the size of the challenge. If we default on our role, other countries will have to capture more than their land-share.
Canada has 8.75% of the world’s forested area (3.47 million square kilometres), all of which stores carbon:
- BC’s coastal old-growth forests store 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare in above-ground and below-ground biomass.
- Cool temperate west coast forests store 625 tonnes of carbon per hectare.
- The boreal forest stores 100 tonnes per hectare.
- The older a forest, the more carbon it captures and stores. Temperate forests add two tonnes of carbon per hectare per year.
When a forest is clearcut in the Pacific Northwest it takes 13 years before the newly growing forest absorbs more emissions than are released from the cut area. In BC, sequestration dead zones that follow clearcutting occupy 3.6 million hectares. On Vancouver Island, the old-growth forest is being logged at a rate of 9,000 hectares a year (25 hectares a day), causing a loss of nine million tonnes of carbon a year, less the carbon stored in long-lasting timber products. Wildfires and pest outbreaks, amplified by the climate emergency, are causing further losses. Between 1993 and 2002 BC’s forests stored an additional 120 million tonnes of carbon, but between 2003 and 2012 they lost 70 million tonnes.
In Ontario, 10% to 23% of reforested areas are not growing new trees due to road-building and full-tree harvesting, the debris from which inhibits forest renewal. Over 30 years, 650,000 hectares of forest have been lost, representing 16.5 Mt of lost opportunity for carbon sequestration; deforestation rates are 50 times greater than official federal reports. In 2017, the National Resources Defense Council reported that clearcutting in Canada’s boreal forest was releasing 26 Mt of CO2 emissions a year. These forest-related emissions and removals are not currently included in our federal and provincial GHG accounting.
In 2017, the forestry sector contributed $24.6 billion to Canada’s economy (1.4% of GDP) and employed 210,000 people, mostly in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario (1.1% of total employment). Changing the way the forest industry works so that our forests store carbon instead of losing it, becoming a solution to the climate emergency rather than a contributing cause, is a challenge we must urgently embrace.
Evidence indicates that clearcutting destroys carbon in the soil and trees, causes erosion and dramatic flooding, and destroys wildlife habitat. Ecological forest management methods that use small canopy openings protect the soil, watersheds and habitats and increase forest carbon, while still supporting a forest industry. Evidence for this approach can be found in the Harrop-Proctor community forest in BC, the Lubeck community forest in Germany, and elsewhere. Forest Europe has developed six criteria for sustainable forest management, including the maintenance and enhancement (a) of the forests’ contribution to global carbon cycles, (b) of forest ecosystem health and vitality, and (c) of their productive functions (wood and non-wood), (d) their biological diversity, (e) their protective functions, and (f) other socio-economic and cultural functions.
To reduce Canada’s forest carbon emissions:
- Starting in 2022, we will commence annual accounting of carbon emissions and storage in Canada’s forests, reporting these annually alongside our other reported emissions.
- We will work with Canada’s provincial governments, forest companies and non-profits to make a transition to Ecological Forest Management Methods, maximizing the forests’ ability to sequestrate atmospheric carbon while also fulfilling other critical functions.
- We will establish a Forest Carbon Commission, with a mandate to establish a methodology for measuring forest carbon, study different forest management methods including in countries such as Finland, and recommend ways for forest companies to make the transition to ecological methods of management.
- To assist with the change, we will offer $500 million in Ecological Forestry Training and Transition Grants. Cost: $500 million one-off (#42)
- In keeping with our Just Transition Act (Week 2), skilled and professional forest workers will receive free training in ecological forest management.
- When the forest carbon measurement tool is ready we will require forest managers with more than 1,000 hectares of forested land to submit a forest carbon report every five years.
- We will apply a $25 per tonne forest carbon tax on lost carbon, rising each year, using the income to support the transition.
- We will offer $100 million in Bioeconomy Development Grants to increase the number of jobs generated per 1,000 cubic metres of timber harvested, both in value-added products and in the production of ecologically sustainable forest bioproducts. Cost: $100 million one-off (#43)
Tree Planting: Researchers at ECH University in Zurich have calculated that Earth could support 4.4 billion hectares of continuous tree cover, 1.6 billion more than the current 2.8 billion hectares. Once mature, the new forests could absorb and store 205 billion tonnes of carbon (128 tonnes per hectare), or two-thirds of the 300 billion tonnes humans have released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
- We will participate in the global drive to plant a trillion trees by 2030. In 2019, Ethiopians planted 350 million trees in a day. Australia has pledged to plant a billion trees by 2050; Ireland to plant 440 million trees by 2040. We have pledged to plant two billion trees by 2030. The ECH study determined that Canada has the third-greatest potential to plant trees in the world – 117 billion trees over 78 million hectares, at a rate of 1,500 trees per hectare, representing 11.7% of the global target. In areas where deer are not major browsers, one way to achieve such a huge number might be by airplane or drone-delivered seed bombs.
- We will provide $1 million in Tree-Planting Research Grants to establish, plan and cost the best ways to plant this many trees in Canada. Cost: $1 million one-off (#44)