Clearcutting the planet’s carbon pools

clearcutting planet's carbon pool
Boreal clearcut, Ontario. River Jordan for NRDC

We all share a lived experience now of what happens when we listen to the science and act quickly.

COVID-19 is not the only curve we need to flatten. Building back better means also bending and flattening the curve on greenhouse gas emissions.

Building back better means prioritizing communities, companies, industries, plans and infrastructure that protect what we have – biodiversity, stored carbon, ecosystem services – and stopping or winding down those that do not.

The focus on tree planting is a very Canadian approach – we don’t want to rock the boat on existing industries. But let’s be clear: our forest policies mirror European policies from the 1960s, while our agricultural policies look like those from the 1980s – neither of which focused on maintaining ecosystems as the foundation of resiliency. Europe is now scrambling to undo these effects – to rewild.

Last month, in a new study in Nature on “irrecoverable carbon,” scientists detailed the vast stores of carbon that are being released and cannot be restored by 2050. The study calls for the next generation of protected area networks to safeguard critical ecosystems with high, irrecoverable carbon stocks.

A groundbreaking report released in early May commissioned by the UK treasury assessed the economic value of biodiversity, and concluded that current high rates of biodiversity loss pose a major risk to our economies and our way of life. Just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, diversity within a portfolio of natural assets – namely, biodiversity – directly and indirectly increases nature’s resilience to shocks, reducing risks to the services on which we rely.

Boreal forests store more carbon per hectare than any other forest type on Earth, other than mangroves. Yet every year logging companies clearcut 400,000 hectares – almost a million acres – of boreal forest. That’s a rate of seven NHL hockey rinks per minute.

Research in British Columbia has shown that after a clearcut, there’s a minimum 13-year window during which the logged and replanted area does not sequester carbon, and it can take more than a hundred years for forests to recover to their pre-harvest state. This analysis suggests that clearcutting is preventing forests in B.C. from removing an additional 26.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere.

Canada’s primary forest loss is amongst the highest in the world.

Maintaining older, biodiverse forests draws down carbon levels and helps buffer imperilled ecosystems against the impacts of climate change. Protecting intact forests also makes nearby communities more resilient to climate impacts such as drought, floods and wildfire.

In April, Stand.Earth released an investigative report on Canada’s growing wood-pellet industry. Pellets are heavily subsidized and touted by our governments as a climate solution. However, growing the wood-pellet export industry in Canada doubles down on carbon emissions: first by instantly releasing a forest’s stored carbon at the smokestack, and second by further degrading forests, which are a critical ally in the fight against climate change.

In the words of scientist Bill Moomaw, professor emeritus at Tufts University and the author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, “If we let some of our existing natural forests grow, we could remove an additional 10 to 20% of what we emit every year; instead, we’re paying subsidies to have people cut them down, burning them in place of coal, and counting it as zero carbon.”

Listen to the science.

We need to focus on protecting high biodiversity areas and carbon-rich primary, intact and old forest landscapes. For example, we are still allowing logging in critical caribou habitat (to make toilet paper) when our own scientists have said we need to protect those same forests.

This needs to stop now.

By supporting Indigenous Guardian programs, employment centred on land restoration, and economic diversification in forest communities, we can create more jobs. Canada could be a global leader and also make progress on reconciliation by committing to reach a 30% protected area target, with a majority of those lands integrating existing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) proposals already submitted through Canada’s Target 1 process.

It is time to reimagine the wood-products industry in the same way that we are starting to reimagine the energy and oil sectors. We can add jobs and economic vitality with a value-added job strategy. We can build furniture, make things we need and create consistent employment in forest communities. And we can stop shipping raw logs and wood pellets while clearcutting the forests that are our planet’s carbon pools. We can explore alternate fibre supplies, recycled fibre and agricultural waste.

Rather than maintaining existing practices, which are still designed to ensure maximum extraction, we need to update forest practices to reflect adaptation science and ecosystem-based management that maintains or restores original forest complexity. This model can also transform forestry from boom and bust cycles, to add good jobs with built-in longevity: selective logging in forest ecosystems, investment in second-growth milling, and Forest Stewardship Council–certified logging will employ more people.

We need to get honest about industrial impacts on our forests and carbon accounting. A recent report from Wildlands League revealed that Canada is underreporting our rates of deforestation. New numbers show that approximately 21,700 hectares are deforested each year in Ontario due to roads and landings imposed by forestry in the boreal forest (roughly equivalent to 40,000 football fields). This is seven times greater than the reported deforestation rate by forestry for all of Canada, and these findings undermine the claim of “near zero deforestation” in Canada.

We also have a broken carbon accounting system when it comes to terrestrial carbon. We are not properly accounting for emissions from logging old forests or the methane emissions from peat and soil disturbance. A recent University of Waterloo paper looked at peat and soil disturbances from seismic lines used in oil and gas exploration in Alberta alone and found that these undocumented emissions would boost Canada’s national reporting of methane in the category of land use, land-use change and forestry by about 8%.

Instead of tearing down nature, we need to rebuild our systems and protect the abundance we have.


Tzeporah Berman is the international program director at Stand.Earth, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Committee, and  co-founder of the Global Gas & Oil Network. 
A version of this was shared at the Building Back Better with Forests and Farming roundtable, May 20, 2020.


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