Boreal forest the next battle

Boreal forest the next battle

6 January 2008

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Canada — Canada’s forest is emerging as an immense – truly immense – national and international player.

The broad swath of often-scruffy timberland stretching from Yukon to Labrador is one of the largest stores of carbon on Earth, making it key to fighting global warming and climate change.

It holds an estimated 186 billion tonnes of carbon – about 27 times as much as is released globally by the burning of fossil fuels each year.

Now, an international coalition of environmentalists and scientists is putting the timberland in the spotlight as never before.

“Canada’s boreal region is a life-support system for the planet because of its key role in carbon storage,” said coalition member Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defence Council’s Canada Program.

“It’s to carbon what Fort Knox is to gold,” added environmentalist Tzeporah Berman. Berman, of B.C.-based ForestEthics, helped step up the coalition’s campaign for better protection of the forest at the recent United Nations climate conference in Bali.

The coalition wants at least 50 per cent of Canada’s boreal forest preserved, saying it is as “critical” as the more famous tropical rain forests.

About 10 per cent of Canada’s forest is now protected, says the coalition, which is concerned with the way logging, Alberta’s massive oilsands projects and even such clean energy initiatives as hydroelectric projects are eating away forest.

The conflicts are sure to grow as Canada’s forests are increasingly viewed as a source of biofuel and as a potential source of carbon credit revenue.

Entrepreneurs are keen to plant trees as carbon offsets, and aboriginal groups are exploring the possibility of selling carbon credits for not logging their traditional lands.

But the forest will be grabbing attention for more than controversy over land use.

Canada’s boreal forest is about half the size of the world’s tropical forests, but it contains almost twice as much carbon per square metre, largely because low temperatures have slowed decomposition and organic soils and thick carbon-rich peats have built up over centuries.

But scientists say the carbon balance in Canada’s forest has begun to shift, with global implications.

Throughout most of the past century, they say Canada’s so-called “managed” forest, which is defined as the 236 million hectares across Canada harvested and replanted by the forest industry, has been a strong carbon “sink,” sucking more and more carbon from the air.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were relatively few fires and insect outbreaks, so the forests continued to grow and sequester carbon, said Werner Kurz of the Canadian Forest Service, who heads the team assessing how carbon moves in and out of the forest.

In recent decades, the researchers say the area burned each year by wildfire has doubled, annual harvest rates have increased somewhat, and rates of carbon uptake by aging forests have slowed.

In extreme fire years, such as 1995, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, the carbon dioxide released as the forests burned accounted for up to 45 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, dwarfing emissions from big industrial sources.

In other years, the forest still absorbs more carbon than it releases. But as temperatures climb with climate change, fires are expected to cut a wider swath.

Kurz and his colleagues predict there is a nine in 10 chance Canada’s forest will be a source of greenhouse gases from 2008 to 2012 because of the increasing incidence of wildfires and pests.

B.C.’s Interior forests have already been so ravaged by the mountain pine beetle that the huge swaths of dead trees are held up internationally as evidence of the devastating impacts of climate change.

The beetles have greatly expanded their range because of warmer winters and crossed the Rockies, raising fears they could eat their way across the northern boreal forests.

If the beetles were not bad enough, foresters expect a spruce budworm outbreak will soon hit Canada’s eastern forests.

Add it all up and Kurz and his colleague predict climate change will have a “profound impact” on the carbon balance of Canada’s forests.

They forecast the area annually burned in Canada is likely to double this century.

On a more positive note, they say climate change might lead to a longer growing season and increase forest growth – “at least initially.”

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