Dispatches From Caribou Country

Dispatches From Caribou Country

8 November 2007

published by torontoist.com

Canada — “What are you doing tonight?” asked a friend of oursMonday afternoon. “Well,” we said, “we’re going to an eventcalled ‘Caribou Country: Our Shield Against Global Warming.'”

“You lost me at Caribou,” our friend replied.

We’re told that environmental issues are at the top of everyone’s mind, butanecdotal evidence suggests that that attention may be narrowly focused. Thisnew environmentalism, it seems, is all about carbon: emissions, taxes, andcredits. Carbonmania, the result of increased awareness around the climatecrisis, is perhaps a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has undeniably giventhe environmental movement a shot in the arm and triggered a new wave ofawareness and debate about our only home’s life support systems. On the other,it has hogged the spotlight, leaving other equally important environmentalissues in the shadows.

Or, it should be said, other related aspects of the same macro-environmentalissue. Because, as climatologists routinely point out, climate change is acrisis that did not evolve in isolation from other environmental crises, nor canit be solved in isolation. In short, there’s more to this than carbon itself.

And yet, with a title like “Caribou Country,” Monday night’s event—presentedby Wildlands League (the Ontario chapter of CPAWS, the Canadian Parks andWilderness Society) at the University of Toronto’s Hart House—caused ourfriend to think of the old “hippy, tree hugging” environmentalism: akind of thinking that seems (to many) to exist in isolation from the practicalreality of every day life, the kind of environmentalism that is “out there,”and doesn’t affect us directly. This line of reasoning, as the speakers at theevent explained, is faulty.

“Caribou Country” refers to Canada’s boreal region, which occupies35% of total Canadian land area and 77% of Canada’s total forest. It also refersto an ecosystem that is on the run. In 1880, the forest (and, along with it, thecaribou population) extended south almost to Algonquin park; today it hasretreated to the remote north of Ontario, well above Sault Ste. Marie. And whileits preservation may seem like a distant “nice to have,” the health ofthe boreal ecosystem is inextricably linked to our choice between increasing ordecreasing the destructiveness of climate change.

Crisis Gone Global

Forest maps by

The difference between the amount of intact forest pre and postindustrialization—a reduction of 70%—is striking when seen on a map. Overlaythat map on a photo of the Earth at night from space, and there’s an inverserelationship between the areas that are lit up and the areas that still havewildlife. The immensity of that change means that environmental problems are nowglobal instead of local, which is why we can no longer afford to think ofwilderness protection as an altruistic frill.

It also means that we’re entrusted with decisions and responsibilities thathave effects far beyond our own boarders. Canada has 20% of the Earth’s wildforests, 20% of its fresh water (which is purified by forest systems), and 50%of the global population of forty species. In other words, we hold the abilityto have a huge impact on the entire globe, be it positive or negative.

Burning The Planet At Both Ends

In order to understand why that is, we need a basic understanding of thecarbon cycle. Discussions regarding global warming tend to focus on one half ofthe cycle: those things that emit carbon, including fires, volcanic explosions,and decompositions. It’s equally important for us to understand the other halfof the cycle, however, which is concerned with those things that store (orsequester) carbon: forests (trees and other vegetation), oceans, otherbiological process, and deep storage including petroleum, marble, coal, andlimestone.

Most people now have a good understanding of how we’ve contributed to climatechange by burning fossil fuels and thereby emitting large amounts of greenhousegases in a short period of time. What’s less well understood is that we’ve alsoseriously harmed the planet’s “carbon sinks,” those systems that storecarbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. You could say we’re burning the Earthat both ends. Therefore, when we talk about fighting climate change, we need torecognize not only the importance of reducing emissions, but also the importanceof preserving and ultimately expanding our planet’s natural carbon sinks.

Carbon cycle diagram by NASA via WikimediaCommons

Those sinks are in serious trouble. Recent evidence suggests that the world’soceans—which normally absorb a full quarter of all carbon emitted into theatmosphere—have become saturated and are shuttingdown their absorption. Other research has shown the level of carbon in theatmosphere to have exceeded450 parts per million, a particularly frightening reality since thescientific consensus was that that wouldn’t happen for another ten years. Thelast thing we need to be doing is actively destroying the boreal forest, whichhas the highest concentration of land-based carbon in Canada, which, in turn,holds 30% of all the land-stored carbon in the world.

Oh, and here’s a kicker: global warming is having a negative impact on theboreal ecosystem itself, so the more of it we damage, the more vulnerable itbecomes to future climate shocks, creating a feedback loop.

The primary cause of destruction of caribou habitat is logging, while diamondmining and large-scale hydro electric projects also have a serious impact. Dr.Anastasia M. Lintner, a lawyer and economist with Ecojustice (formerly SierraLegal Defence Fund), spoke last and had the responsibility of suggestingsolutions to these problems. She proposed a move towards a “low carboneconomy,” which she described as an economy where there are deep reductionsin emissions due to the internalization of carbon costs (you must pay a price topollute), and where we aim to “sink carbon” once we’ve reduced ouremissions (in other words, it’s not enough to reduce our emissions, wemust actually reverse them). One of the ways to do this is to set up acarbon trading system, where companies (or, theoretically, individuals) who havemade reductions in carbon can sell those “credits” on a stockexchange-like market to other companies or individuals who have not reducedtheir emissions. Linter emphasized that these kinds of actions must be mandatoryif they’re going to work, unlike the current federal government’s plans topromote “aspirational” targets (which are a step below “voluntary”).As an example, she pointed to the EU carbon exchange, where there are mandatoryrules and the price of a tonne of carbon is around $30. On the Chicago carbonexchange, which is voluntary, the price is less than $2 per tonne.

It’s important to place a price on carbon so that we can make intelligentdecisions about what it’s worth to release it into the atmosphere. So, what doesthat mean in real numbers? According to Linter, “allocated forest” inOntario (meaning the parts that are slated to be cut down) currently stores1,363 Mt (mega tonnes) of carbon, even without including the peat lands (whichstore far more carbon per hectare than the forest area does). On the EU carbonexchange, keeping that carbon in the ground would be worth $8,200,000,000. Atthat price, it makes no economic sense to log any more of the forest.

Although, Linter argued that the area of forest below the cut-line isn’tcommercially viable without subsidization anyway. Our forest industry isstruggling because we can’t compete with other fast-growing parts of the worldwith lower labour costs. Instead, we need to think about how this industry willtransition and diversify. We can take advantage of emerging “green”markets while simultaneously preserving threatened woodland Caribou habitat andfighting climate change. And we need to ask ourselves, “what is the dollarvalue we want to place, as a society, on keeping the forest intact, on the waterand air that it cleans, on the carbon it keeps sequestered?”

Using this strategy, Linter says we can successfully 1) fight climate change,2) preserve caribou habitat, and 3) position Ontario as a leader in emerginggreen markets and the future low carbon economy.

Caribou live in the most carbon rich environment on the planet. We in Canadahave a global trust to keep that carbon where it is, and to keep the ecosystemintact so that it’s more resilient to the impacts of climate change. If wesucceed, our success will be global. Likewise if we fail. From a climate changeperspective, a wilderness perspective, and an economic perspective, the choiceis clear. We must act before it’s too late, and the clock is ticking.

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