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To Cut or Conserve?

Managing our forests, or managing our own carbon emissions is the real question.

Moose © Noah Cole

By Julee Boan and Tim Gray,
Alternatives Journal,
Volume 44 Number 1

MINO-BIMAADIZIWIN (the Good Life) is the Anishinaabek all-encompassing term for maintaining healthy individuals, healthy ecosystems and a healthy planet. Balance and responsibility are its key principles. Since the race is now on to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Mino-bimaadiziwin is more important than ever to incorporate in every aspect of our society and economy, especially when managing our forests.

From an Anishinaabe worldview, offloading our own responsibilities to other life forms, such as by removing trees, or by planting them within an artificial context, is not going to bring the world back to balance.

Canada, along with the other 175 signatories of the Paris Agreement, agrees that GHG emissions must be lowered by 80 percent by 2050 to avoid a temperature rise over 2° Celsius – beyond which scientists warn that climate impacts will be catastrophic and irreversible. Temperature increases due to climate change are already greatest in northern latitudes. As a result, even enormous ecosystems such as the northern boreal forests are changing drastically, with increased fires and insects creating new stresses.

For centuries, Canada’s northern forests have had a significant role in absorbing carbon dioxide and storing carbon, helping to stabilize the planet’s climate during industrialization. However, these ecosystems are shaped by forest fire, and as a result, annual GHG emissions from forests have been highly variable and unpredictable.

This unpredictability was one reason Canada did not formally include forest management in actions to reduce emissions or sequester more carbon when calculating our international climate change targets in past commitments (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol). Now, however, there is recognition that all opportunities to address climate change need to be explored, even as the forests themselves are under increasing pressure. As a result, we must ask whether harvesting more or less timber is a better strategy as Canada’s forests adapt to a changing climate.

On one hand, research has shown that shifting industrial products from more energy-intensive plastic and steel to comparable forest products could reduce GHG emissions associated with smelting and oil refining, increase the amount of carbon retained in furniture, houses and other longer-lived wood products and reduce carbon emissions associated with building processes. However, the need to reduce consumption remains paramount. If such a shift to wood products simply results in increasing the number of boxes that ship avocados from California, or support building larger homes with an increased energy footprint, any real emission reductions from such a shift would likely be lost. We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used to create them.

Alternatively, many scientists are supporting forest conservation approaches that combine the benefits of carbon storage with the protection of biodiversity, which itself is threatened by climate change. According to a study led by evolutionary ecologist John Wiens from the University of Arizona, species and ecosystems may be unable to keep pace with rapid climate change projected for the 21st century (most plant species can only migrate at 1/10th the required speed to keep up with their habitat moving north as a result of climate change). From a global perspective, scientists now estimate that due to a combination of invasive species, break-up of habitats and climate change, we are now losing species one to five species per year at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate. The best chance for plants and animals to adapt to these changes is to keep habitats intact and connected. This approach would call for less intensive use, rather than more.

Rather than cut trees down to make products that temporarily sequester carbon, there are many reasons to let trees grow. Many species of tree can live for hundreds or even thousands of years and continue to take up carbon throughout their lives. West Coast rainforests, central Ontario hardwoods and even the far eastern boreal forest include trees that would naturally live much longer than the planned harvest cycles of the forest industry. In addition, all forest products eventually decay. Paper, pulp and cheap furniture can see their carbon back in the atmosphere in a few months or years and even the lumber in a new house can end up in a landfill long before the tree that it was cut from would have died naturally.

Any discussion of forest carbon policy – whether to harvest less or

GHG Considerations IN FOREST product life-cycle analyses conducted in the US, researchers found that more greenhouse gas is released making wood products than is stored in them. They found associated net transfers to the atmosphere totalled the equivalent of 103.5 Teragrams of CO2. That said, in Ontario, there may be more GHG reduction benefits associated with forest products because all coal-powered electricity plants are closed and Ontario’s cleaner electricity grid and more efficient use of mill waste means products will likely emit less carbon.

more – must respect Indigenous rights, and clearly establish ownership of forest carbon. As Canada engages in a process of reconciliation, land rights are critical. Forest carbon management policy and practices should be jointly developed with, and complementary to, Indigenous land management practices.

“We have the responsibility to function as stewards of the land. Through all life forms fulfilling their responsibilities, we promote and maintain balance and keep our planet healthy,” says Lana Ray, assistant professor at Lakehead University and member of the Lake Helen First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She continues, “Today, however, we often ignore this role and make decisions based on what is best for humans alone or for certain humans. This is what has caused greenhouse gas levels to skyrocket. From an Anishinaabe worldview, offloading our own responsibilities to other life forms, such as by removing trees, or by planting them within an artificial context, is not going to bring the world back to balance. To reduce carbon emissions, we need to take responsibility and turn the attention inward at ourselves. We need to significantly rethink our current policies and practices related to consumption, environmental assessment and decision making, including forest carbon management frameworks that promote imbalance as a means to create balance.”

A singular focus on carbon, for example by managing forests to be younger and more actively growing and sequestering carbon, has the potential to be a regressive forest management practice. Simplifying the complexity of the underlying biological systems and their natural variability, underestimating time-lags in ecosystems response, and considering only a narrow range of management options will all lead to over-exploitation. This pursuit of short term wealth risks a shift to agroforestry for the purpose of growing carbon, while discounting the other adaptive values of forests that are so important to maintain in times of great change.

Instead, we should focus on conserving large forest landscapes for their value in adaptation, restore or regrow forests on lands where they have been degraded, and enhance the amount of stored carbon in managed forests by changing to partial harvest systems and extend the time between harvests.

Since climate change is now rapidly altering forests, we must acknowledge the diversity of forest values and increase our scientific and political sophistication so we manage those forests effectively. Climate and conservation organizations, including Environmental Defence and Ontario Nature, are working to increase the effectiveness of forest policy. They support knowledge-sharing, participate in working groups, and respond to policy proposals to ensure that decisions impacting forests are transparent and inclusive in this changing climate. We need to know what is best for forest health if we want the trees – and the water, air, and biodiversity they provide – to thrive.

Julee Boan is the Boreal Program manager for Ontario Nature based in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence based in Toronto, Ontario.

For more on how Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence are working to ensure that Ontario and federal government plans to develop Forest Carbon Policies and Forest Offset Protocols reflect combined goals of mitigating atmospheric carbon emissions and maintaining resilient forest ecosystems.

For more information please contact: juleeb@ontarionature.org or tgray@environmentaldefence.ca.

Posted with permission of Alternatives Journal. Original article first appeared in Alternatives Journal, Volume 44 Number 1.