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  • Plundering the carbon sink

    Katherine Palmer Gordon

    February 2015

    The extraordinary potential of Vancouver Island forests to sequester carbon is being lost due to government inaction.

    (Originally published in Focus Magazine)


    VICKY HUSBAND, one of BC's best-known environmentalists and a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of BC, states the situation in her typical forthright fashion: “Our forests are being completely plundered. It’s a cut-and-run approach that isn’t providing local jobs, isn’t going into value-added products, and certainly isn’t seeing money coming back into the pockets of the people of BC. Forest management in BC, as it is practised today, is none of those things.”

    It also isn’t helping preserve the capacity of BC’s unique coastal forests, world-famous for their huge and ancient spruce, fir and cedar, to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and sequester that carbon in those giant trees. 

    In the mid-1950s, as Husband points out, old-growth forests (more than 140 years old) once painted Vancouver Island and the south coast of BC a rich dark green. By 2014, as shown on the map below by David Leversee, green has been almost completely replaced by the purple of second-growth trees, some still in their infancy. Even second-growth forests are now at risk, as logging companies turn their eyes towards trees as young as 40 years old in the quest to meet their bottom lines. 

    Why does it matter? The Sierra Club calculates that remaining high-quality old-growth forests on Vancouver Island and the South Coast are still currently storing at least 225 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to more than 13 times BC’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. But that clearly can’t be taken for granted. With a business-as-usual rate of logging, those remaining old trees—along with their remarkable ability to capture and store massive amounts of carbon—could vanish in our lifetimes. With the way things are going in Canada’s efforts to reach greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, it’s a loss we can ill afford. 


    BY NO LATER THAN the end of March, Canada is required to submit a preliminary long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan to the United Nations in anticipation of the annual UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris in December 2015. 

    Given the federal government’s track record to date (Canada perennially wins the Climate Action Network’s Fossil of the Year Award), it’s difficult to imagine the plan will commit to any significant transition away from fossil fuel exploitation. That’s despite the fact that by 2020, Canada’s oil and gas sector is expected to have increased its annual emissions from 2005 levels by 45 megatonnes.

    It’s also despite the fact that 2020 is the year by which Canada is supposed to reduce its annual emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels of 731 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to a target of 611 megatonnes. We already know that we’re not going to get even close. Environment Canada estimates that Canada’s annual emissions will still be as high as 727 megatonnes by 2020. 

    In BC, emissions reduction targets are considerably more ambitious—and equally tenuous. The Province has committed to reduce its emissions to 33 percent below 2007 levels (64.3 megatonnes) by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. In its 2014 Progress Report on Climate Action, the provincial Ministry of Environment (MoE) reported that it had achieved an interim target of 6 percent by 2012. The next interim target is a significantly higher 18 percent reduction in emissions by next year.

    Yet the provincial government continues to frantically promote massive high-emissions LNG development. It has also done little to stand in the way of oil infrastructure proposals (i.e. pipelines). BC’s carbon tax, though lauded by some, is viewed by many economists as too low to effectively discourage fossil fuel use. Falling oil prices aren’t helping. MoE openly admits: “More action will be needed to move from each target to the next. With current policies remaining as they are, BC greenhouse gas emissions may begin to increase.” 

    Meanwhile, the temperature keeps going up. Climate scientists recently announced that 2014 was the hottest year on record. They said the same thing about 2013. According to the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned against the drastic consequences of a global average temperature increase of two degrees Celsius. At current rates of emissions, that may well occur before the end of this century, with consequences typically described in biblical terms: extreme storms, lengthy droughts, flooding, famine, and pestilence.

    The IPCC also states: “Forestry can make a very significant contribution…to mitigation. In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks…will generate the largest sustained [contribution].” 


    GIVEN CANADA'S FAILURE TO REDUCE fossil fuel exploitation in the last decade, could forest carbon sequestration offer the solution to achieving our emissions reduction targets? Victoria-based Natural Resources Canada senior research scientist Dr Werner Kurz is unequivocal in his response: “Forests can definitely make a meaningful and significant contribution.” 

    Global forests currently remove up to one-third of the world’s carbon emissions from the atmosphere and sequester or store them in their wood, leaves and roots and in the surrounding soil. 

    They also emit carbon in a variety of ways, including through decay and wildfire. 

    Forests are carbon sinks if they absorb more carbon than they emit, or carbon sources if they emit more than they absorb.

    How forest resources are used also affects whether forests are carbon sinks or sources. When cut timber is stored in long-lived wood products, like construction lumber and high-end value-added products, it continues to store carbon for a long time. Emissions are also reduced if those products are used in construction to replace emissions-intensive products like steel and concrete. 

    Converting wastewood to biofuel may also reduce emissions if the biofuel replaces fossil fuel energy. Conversely, burning wood or using it for shorter-lived products like pulp and paper will result in the tree’s carbon being released to the atmosphere in the short term, thus adding to emissions totals. 

    With 310 million hectares of forests, 55 million of them in BC, Canada has the potential to contribute significantly to global carbon sequestration. Since 2002, however, Canada’s forests—including BC’s—have been a carbon source, not a sink. The reasons include wildfires and unprecedented insect outbreaks (both of which can result from warming temperatures). However, it's the rate at which our trees are being cut down that is the biggest contributor.

    Environment Canada openly acknowledges in Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014: “The human activity that has the most impact on Canada’s forest emissions/removals is harvesting.” In BC’s 2010 State of the Forests report, the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations includes a graph that clearly shows that the emissions from continued harvesting in BC far exceed those from fire and slashburning, and outweigh emissions sequestered in growing trees by a factor of two to one. In its 2013 publication Growing Carbon Sinks, Ministry of Forests also admits that increased harvest rates are a problem. 

    Despite both admissions, neither Canada nor BC has moved to limit harvesting towards reducing overall carbon emissions. 


    WERNER KURZ BEGAN WORKING WITH the University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in mid-2014 to research the ways in which BC’s forests can contribute to climate change mitigation. Kurz says that BC’s coastal forests are key in the carbon sequestration equation: “On Vancouver Island and the coast, trees can grow for hundreds of years. They may be taking up carbon at fairly high rates for two or three centuries. The risk of loss due to natural forces is also probably lower than elsewhere in Canada, so [this is where] we likely have the greatest opportunity to grow long-lived forests storing a lot of carbon for a long time.”

    The provincial government appears to agree: “Some of [BC’s] forests,” boasts its Ministry of Forests, “contain the most carbon storage per hectare of any forest type in the world.” Ministry of Forests states that a 100-year-old coastal Sitka spruce will store about 1.84 tonnes of carbon (compared to an interior spruce the same age, at 0.47 tonnes). Coastal red cedar and Douglas fir aren’t far behind their spruce cousins, storing 1.47 and 1.32 tonnes of carbon respectively by the time they hit a century (an interior Douglas fir, by comparison, stores about one-third that amount). 

    An assumption oft-quoted by the forest industry is that the rate at which mature trees sequester carbon slows down and becomes negligible after about 100 years. It’s used as a justification to cut down relatively young trees: If they’ve become “decadent” and they’re not continuing to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, why leave them standing? 

    But in 2008, a scientific study in the US established that forests as old as eight centuries in fact do continue to accumulate carbon, and at a significant rate. In 2014 another group of US scientists built on that finding, concluding not only that old trees continue to accumulate carbon but that the larger a tree gets, the more carbon it accumulates each year. In just one West Coast forest plot that the scientists studied, trees larger than one metre in diameter comprised just 6 percent of the trees, but accounted for 33 percent of the growth. Lead scientist Stephen Sillett concluded: “The idea that older forests are decadent—it’s really just a myth.”

    Kurz believes there’s no time to waste in implenting forestry-related mitigation measures aimed at meaningful long-term reductions in provincial emissions. 

    “Ecosystems are slow-moving,” he explains. “At the rate trees grow in Canada, it could take several decades to see the full benefit of changes to forest management. We have to start making those changes now so they are having an impact by 2050, when we need our forests to be making the biggest contribution to emissions reductions.” 

    Unfortunately, there’s little sign of anything actually happening on the ground. When Kurz was asked about the timeline for implementation of his research results, he responded candidly: “I honestly don’t know.” 

    In the meantime, as usual, the economy continues to drive the federal government’s agenda. Canada’s Action on Climate Change “Reducing Greenhouse Gases” webpage contains no reference to forest management. Moreover, Natural Resources Canada suggests that reducing harvesting would have a negligible impact on emissions. That’s despite their own admission that “[It is clear] that where deforestation is reduced, the immediate outcome is reduced GHG emissions.” NRC also admits that the rate at which net deforestation is occurring is only expected to drop by a fraction from 2005 levels by 2020, “due to the expansion of the oil and gas industry.”

    NRC says that it would simply cost too much to engage in afforestation, or the creation of new forests where none exist now: “One problem identified is that many of the costs of afforestation must be paid for upfront, but the carbon sink benefits develop slowly over time. This means that afforestation is not always economically attractive to the private sector.” Heaven forbid companies profiting from resource extraction should have to pay for mitigation of the impacts of their activities.

    BC at least promotes forest carbon management as “an immediate imperative.” But as usual, talk is one thing, action another. In 2013’s Growing Carbon Sinks, the Ministry of Forests admits “no official strategy exists currently.” The Ministry has committed to developing a climate action plan by March 31 of this year. A request for an update on the status and likely contents of the plan received no response, however.

    In 2010, the provincial government did enact a net-zero-deforestation policy for BC. As Kurz points out, however, while that may mean there have been no further reductions in forest land area in BC, that doesn’t mean a net-zero impact on carbon emissions: “You’re typically cutting down mature trees but replacing them with small ones, so you likely still have a net reduction in carbon stocks.” 

    To the Province, age doesn’t seem to matter, despite the science pointing to the carbon storage efficiency of older trees. The Ministry of Forests states: “[The] minimum harvestable age is an estimate of the earliest age at which a stand has reached a harvestable condition—i.e., has met minimum merchantable criteria.” In other words, if there’s a market for it, you can chop it down. For Douglas fir, admits the Ministry of Forests, that can be as young as 40 years.

    Then there’s the issue of private forest land, comprising 20 percent of Vancouver Island’s forest cover. The provincial government doesn’t regulate harvesting on private land. The Ministry of Forests confirms that: “The determination of minimum harvest age on private-managed forest land is at the discretion of the landowner.” Commons BC geographic information system mapper Dave Leversee estimates that from 2012 to 2014, of the more than 40 million cubic metres of timber logged on Vancouver Island, one-third of it came from private lands. That’s a lot of unregulated wood.

    Here are some more depressing statistics. Unprocessed logs, more than 40 percent of which come from private forest land, comprise more than 30 percent of coastal forest exports. Forty-six percent of the Coast-Douglas Fir Zone—southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands—had been lost to non-forest use by 2010. Seventy-five mills have closed permanently in BC since 2000, 17 of them on Vancouver Island and another 33 on the rest of the coast. In the two decades to 2011, forest sector jobs had declined by 52 percent to just over 46,000. 

    In other words, strategies to support the forest economy on the BC coast—let alone promote carbon sequestration or the local wood product industry—seem to be thin on the ground. There is an upside to all this, according to the Ministry of Forests: mill closures and a reduction in industrial activity in recent years “have contributed to a decrease in emissions.” 


    THE SIERRA CLUB ADVOCATES that from a carbon storage perspective, logging of old-growth forests needs to stop today. Their 2013 report Carbon at Risk: BC’s Unprotected Old-growth Rainforest, concluded, “Avoided logging of old-growth rainforest is one of the most immediately effective actions to reduce emissions.” It argued that from a carbon perspective, “converting old-growth rainforest to second growth is like giving away a safe, hefty bank account with a decent interest rate in exchange for a start-up bank account with almost zero money and the promise of spectacular growth based on unreliable forecasts.”

    Vicky Husband believes that given how little old-growth remains, it is now just as necessary to provide similar protection to mature second-growth forests: “It’s absolutely critical,” she declares emphatically, “to preserve all these big trees.”

    Given how important a role BC’s coastal forest could play in terms of carbon emissions reductions, preserving mature trees—on both Crown and private land—would seem logical as a simple matter of precaution. 

    Katherine Palmer Gordon has written six books of non-fiction, including several BC Bestsellers and a Haig-Brown prize-winner. Her most recent book is We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia.

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