Times Colonist   August 18, 2009

B.C. stumbling on forests and climate change

By George Heyman and Jens Wieting,
Less than six months before the global climate summit in Copenhagen, this summer is giving us another taste of climate change. The extended heat wave reminded us that we're on the edge of a dangerous threshold unless we reduce carbon emissions quickly.

The tree-planting carbon offset proposed by B.C.'s Ministry of Forests in July doesn't inspire confidence that the province understands how forests can truly help us meet this challenge.

Carbon offsets are a tricky proposition. They won't contribute to a real solution unless buyers have aggressive plans in place to slash their carbon footprints before looking at offsets as an interim measure or a way to compensate for remaining emissions.

We must be particularly careful about forest carbon offsets because trees can absorb only so much CO2. Beyond a certain level of warming, forests will start to die and release their carbon into the atmosphere, adding to the emissions that some of them were supposed to offset.

At this stage, relying on planting seedlings that will take decades to absorb significant amounts of carbon is like rolling the dice in Vegas.

The rapid melting of polar ice, years ahead of some of the most radical recent predictions, means that we cannot afford unverifiable or speculative schemes. We must rapidly reduce emissions from all sectors, including from deforestation and degradation of forests.

Globally, about one-fifth of CO2 emissions originate from destructive use of forests. Canada's forests and their soils store 88 billion tonnes of carbon, equal to more than 10 times the annual worldwide emissions.

In the 1990s, the Canadian government was optimistic that our forests would continue to store more carbon than they release into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately there are now more and more years in which Canada's forests are a source, not a sink, for carbon dioxide. So the federal government decided not to include emissions released from forests in the national greenhouse gas inventory. But not counting the problem doesn't make it go away.

According to the provincial inventory report released last month, B.C.'s total emissions in 2007 were 67.3 million tonnes of CO2 and equivalents, while emissions from B.C.'s forests -- not counted in the official total -- were 52.1 million tonnes.

So far, Canada's forested area remains stable. It is not deforestation, but degradation that causes significant carbon emissions. The mountain pine beetle outbreak and fires are made worse by global warming.

But B.C. is also home to relatively safe carbon storehouses. Our temperate rain forests are generally not fire-prone or hard-hit by insects. Old growth forests can store up to 1,300 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Converting old growth forest to second growth releases up to 50 per cent of the carbon, with little of it stored long-term in wood products.

Not logging ancient forests is one of the most effective immediate actions we can take to reduce our emissions -- and to slow the increased rate of extinction global warming brings in its wake.

About 43 per cent of B.C.'s species are already the subject of conservation concern. In the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, remaining old growth forest areas are now so isolated that some species are at risk of not having a fighting chance to adapt to the changing climate. They will not survive unless we set aside their remaining intact habitat and restore wilderness corridors for migration.

B.C. needs new forest policies that better protect our old forests and the species that live there and keep stored carbon from releasing into our atmosphere, adding to the total emissions. Forest carbon offsets can become part of the solution if they allow for immediate emission reductions and protect biodiversity.

The current proposal by the B.C. government fails on both counts -- no immediate emission reduction and no benefit for species protection. In fact, its preferred options of select seed use and application of fertilizers hint toward short rotation plantations that present little else than an ecological desert for most species.

New forest policies that address climate change will also create new jobs in the forest sector. For many uses, wood is an environmentally more benign alternative than materials like concrete and steel. We need forestry to meet that demand in a sustainable manner.

Improved forest management practices like selective logging and longer rotation allow for more employment than industrialized clear-cutting. Combined with promotion of value-added products and a phase out of raw log exports we can move towards a truly green forestry sector that provides jobs, carbon sinks and species habitat.

It's true that we have little time to act, but sometimes it's simply best to press the "reset" button and get it right.

George Heyman is executive director and Jens Wieting is coastal forest campaigner with Sierra Club B.C.