General · 7th February 2010
Trees are forests of carbon. If the trees are living, they absorb carbon dioxide, emit oxygen and cool the planet; if the trees are dead, they consume oxygen, emit carbon dioxide and warm the planet. Healthy forests ameliorate climate extremes, clean the air of pollutants, generate clouds, encourage regular rain and constitute some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Without forests, this most amazing planet would be critically diminished.
Yet, in one short century, industrial logging and agriculture have combined with population sprawl to obliterate about one-half of the world's forests.
The critical value of forests have been known to us for centuries. The ancient Greeks, Persians and Romans all learned the hard way. Although their lessons are obvious to anyone with a modest sense of history, we have done little to protect our own forests. Perhaps this is changing as we accelerate down the dark tunnel of ecological unravelling and glimpse an impending crash of unthinkable proportions.
At least the international community at Copenhagen's climate talks recognized this threat. If they accomplished anything, they did acknowledge that one large tree can produce enough oxygen to sustain the breathing needs of an adult human being, that 1 hectare of old-growth temperate rainforest can store 1,000 tonnes of carbon (50% of the dry weight of a tree is made from carbon dioxide), and that deforestation accounts for about 15% of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions – more than all the world's cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined.
Copenhagen also acknowledged that deforestation can be stopped and reversed. Evidence from Panama and Costa Rica confirms that tropical forests can recover up to 90 percent of their original biodiversity in as little as 20 years. Other studies show that protecting and restoring forest is six times more cost effective than cutting carbon dioxide emissions with clean technologies such as solar or wind power (Newsweek, Jan. 11/10). Consequently, developed nations agreed to pay poor and developing nations $3.5 billion to help end deforestation (Ibid.) .
In British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle has killed about 1 billion trees throughout 15 million hectares of forest, the carbon impact is just being calculated. In Managing BC's Forests For A Cooler Planet, a recent study presented by Ben Parfitt, one of the environmental costs of these dead trees is annual emissions of 74 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent, greater than the 64 megatonnes of province's entire CO2 output from human activity, and nearly twice the 38 megatonnes of the notoriously dirty Alberta tar sands project (Globe & Mail, Jan.8/10). In another comparison that gives perspective to the magnitude of this die-off, the 400-plus million cubic metres of dead wood is enough to rebuild the three cities of Toronto, Montreal and New York. This one ecological disaster, the largest in North America, means that BC's 60 million hectares of forests are now a net emitter of greenhouse gases, and the province will be unable to reach its goal of reducing its GHG emissions 30% by 2020.
This study presented by Parfitt, a collaborative work of environmentalists, labour unions and academics, proposes a revolutionary change in BC's forestry practices. The emphasis would shift from the maximum amount of cut that forests can sustain to the maximum amount of carbon that can be sequestered in trees and wood products – from an Annual Allowable Cut to a Carbon Cut Calculation (CCC).
This CCC would mean that healthy old-growth forests containing massive amounts of stored carbon would be preserved. Clear-cutting would end. Beetle-killed interior forests would be allowed to regenerate or be planted with insect and drought resistant species such as hybrid poplar. Forest soils would be treated as carbon sinks. Logging cycles would be extended to optimize carbon uptake. Forest cover would be stabilized or increased. Open burning would end, wood waste minimized and non commercial fibre would be converted to useful heat and electricity by "bio-energy" or "syngas" processes. Wood products that continued to store carbon would be treated preferentially over uses that released greenhouse gases. A strict system of carbon accounting would allow for a fair distribution of debits, credits and taxes in a new carbon-based economy.
With BC's forest industry in its present shambles, perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to revolutionize our management of the province's timber. As the best of all possible options, maybe no living trees should be cut except for the thinning designed to optimize carbon storage. Could a reformed industry survive on diseased, dying, dead and thinned trees? With the careful and resourceful use of our trees, BC could become a world leader in forestry, an innovator and ethical model for using a critically important resource. Think environmental protection, ecological restoration, carbon storage, climate stabilization and creative ingenuity. The prospects are exciting and promising for BC.
Elsewhere, with attention, cooperation, effort and resolve, the remaining forests on the rest of the planet could be saved, greenhouse gases significantly reduced, biodiversity maintained or enhanced, and logging could graduate to a wholly constructive practice. With this new perspective and a wiser use of our temperate, tropical and taiga forests, we could slow the devastating creep of global climate change while enhancing the vitality and beauty of a planet where we must learn to live sustainably. Instead of being brutish exploiters of an indispensable resource, we could become intelligent custodians of our trees and forests.