"Living assets" are key in the fight against climate change

January 26, 2010

In the fight against climate change, few natural assets are as important as forests. Healthy living trees store enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon.

The same is true of many forest products: every two-by-four in a house stores the carbon that the tree it came from stored. Depending on how well the house is made, that carbon remains locked up for decades, if not centuries to come.  

But here in BC, we face enormous hurdles to managing our forests in ways that maximize carbon storage.

As many British Columbians know, we now have about one billion dead pine trees spread across an area of the province roughly equivalent in size to England.

The pine beetle attack that killed these trees was unusually severe, due in part to mild winters that allowed beetle populations to explode, and a glut of older pine trees that resulted from efforts to suppress forest fires. Ironically, those largely successful suppression efforts meant that we saved the forest only to see most of its trees killed by the beetles. Now, these brittle, beetle-killed trees may be susceptible to burning in catastrophic wildfires – the kind of infernos that threatened numerous BC communities last year and that led to huge releases of greenhouse gases back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The sea of “dead” pine forest highlights the challenges we face with climate change. From a carbon storage perspective, a billion decaying pine trees represents a huge source of future greenhouse gas emissions. As those trees fall over and decay, much of their stored carbon will be released back into the atmosphere.

But in many forests, beneath the dead older trees, smaller and younger trees are growing vigorously. In those forests, logging prematurely is a mistake. Based on scientific study, it now appears that only about one third of all beetle-attacked forests make sense to log at this time. The rest should be left alone for now, because their young trees are photosynthesizing and drawing in new stores of carbon.

Where logging does occur, it is vital that society gets the best possible environmental and economic returns. From a climate change perspective, that means placing carbon storage at the forefront of forest product use. Solid wood products not only store carbon, but also require far fewer greenhouse gases to produce than do other common building materials like concrete, brick, glass and steel.

It also means zero tolerance for wanton waste of usable wood at logging operations. The usable waste accumulated at BC logging operations between 2003 and 2008 alone would have filled a solid line of logging trucks from Vancouver to Halifax and almost back again. That waste cost BC more than 2,400 forest industry jobs per year and added an extra 5 per cent to the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s unacceptable, and just one reason why this month the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives joined with environmental organizations – the David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club BC and Western Canada Wilderness Committee – and all three of BC’s forest industry unions – the United Steelworkers, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers and the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada – to say that it is time to chart a new course in BC, based on the invaluable role our forests and forest products play in moderating our climate.

We need a new approach to forest management that includes more forest conservation, a different way of calculating what forests are logged when, and a renewed emphasis on forest industry jobs focused on making long-lasting solid wood products.

Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of Managing BC’s Forests for a Cooler Planet, Carbon Storage, Sustainable Jobs and Conservation.