Panel: Industrial Activity and Climate in Canada's Boreal
On May 8, NRDC gathered a group of scientists to present on several key issues related to industrial development’s ecosystem and climate effect in Canada’s boreal forest. Coming on the heels the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) release of a harrowing report on the state of global biodiversity loss, the panelists examined some of the key connections between biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. At the same time, the panelists unwrapped some of the common myths and misperceptions about intensive industrial activity’s climate footprint in Canada’s boreal forest.
Experts Kick Off Webinar Series on Climate Change and Canada’s Boreal Forest
NRDC’s first webinar, in a planned series of boreal-focused events, focused on Canada’s boreal forest and industrial development’s climate change effects and featured four experts who spent the hour drilling down on subjects including ecosystem carbon densities, soil carbon, carbon debts, embodied carbon, and peatland and wetland disturbances. Moderator Dr. Keith Kisselle—a biologist who specializes in soils and soil carbon—was joined by three other experts with long histories of working on issues in Canada’s boreal forest:
- Dr. Jeff Wells, Vice President of Boreal Conservation at the National Audubon Society
- Dr. Jay Malcolm, Professor with the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto
- Dr. Maria Strack, NSERC Canada Research Chair on Ecosystem and Climate and Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo
Simple Message, Complex Situation: Business as Usual Industrial Activity in Canada’s Boreal Forest Is Harming the Global Climate
In the public discourse around Canada’s extractive industries, there are mountains of conflicting information. Scientists and advocates have consistently raised alarm bells over environmental harms being wrought by logging, oil and gas development, mining, and hydroelectricity development taking place across Canada’s boreal forest. On the other side, Canada’s governments and industries put forth a green image of sustainability and environmental stewardship that has captured the hearts and minds of many in the international community. Canada is seen a “green,” no matter what’s taking place on the ground.
Our panel sought to begin the hard work of pulling back some of this green-tinted veneer. Using their recent research, panelists highlighted five key points that are often overlooked or avoided when the effects of industrial activity in Canada’s boreal forest is examined:
- In the natural climate mitigation space, equatorial forests dominate the discourse of policymakers and scientists because of their large and rapidly growing trees. Nonetheless, the boreal forest is the most carbon dense terrestrial ecosystem in the world, storing unimaginable quantities of carbon in its soils. This carbon pool is relatively stable and secure, but disturbances can and do lead to the release of significant volumes into the atmosphere.
- Canada touts its progress toward a very low rate of deforestation, but ignores the similarly harmful effects of forest degradation. Comparing Canada’s forest harvest to Brazil’s deforestation, the annual area cleared in each country is nearly equivalent, but Canada avoids international scrutiny because of its assurances that cleared forests will be fully regrown. Regardless of whether this regrowth actually takes place, ignoring the real and harmful ecosystem consequences of widespread industrial logging in Canada’s forests does a major disservice to global efforts to stop runaway climate change.
- Canada has protected only a small percentage of its terrestrial ecosystems and is a long way from meeting the protection commitments it has promised to achieve by 2020. At the same time, existing protected areas fail to cover critical habitats of numerous iconic North American species. Calls for expanded ecosystem protection in the coming years present Canada with a major opportunity to protect carbon dense ecosystems, which often overlap nearly perfectly with the habitat of important boreal species.
- Current rates of extraction from the boreal forest are leading to a carbon debt—a situation where more carbon is taken out of the ecosystem than the ecosystem brings back in—that cannot be repaid within the time period during which the world needs to take drastic actions to halt runaway climate change. This is true even if it is assumed that harvested forests are regrown with 100% success rates, soil carbon remains undisturbed and thus unreleased, and the existing mix of wood products continues to be produced from boreal forest feedstocks.
- Historic oil and gas activities have fragmented huge areas of Alberta’s boreal forest and are affecting peatland and wetland carbon uptake and storage dynamics. When industrial activity moves into areas covered by wetlands or peatlands, large shifts in ecosystem carbon flows take place, causing these incredibly effective carbon sinks to become net emitters of CO2 and methane.
Policymakers, Corporations, and Consumers Need to Understand the Boreal Forest’s Critical Role in Climate Mitigation
The Canadian boreal forest is one of the last great forests on earth: home to over 600 indigenous communities, with extraordinary biodiversity, and globally significant to our earth’s climate, it cannot be forgotten. Despite its extraordinary scale and value, there has been a gap in recognition from both scientists, advocates, governments, and industry that the boreal forest needs more attention in the “natural climate solutions” space. Defending the carbon it already holds—in addition to the carbon it can remove—will be essential to mitigating catastrophic climate change.
The tropics contain fast-growing forests that can remove large volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, especially if deforestation is reigned in and regeneration is prioritized. And these things must take place—without question. Nonetheless, the boreal forest is like the world’s carbon vault that must not be cracked. Its trees are slow-growing and remove smaller quantities of carbon dioxide on an annual basis, but its soils hold far more carbon than the tropics, and that soil is currently relatively secure if the boreal forest remains undegraded. As climate change worsens, it becomes ever more important that this carbon remain in place.
A key driver of this carbon’s release is industrial activity across the boreal forest. The world consumes numerous products that come from this forest including paper, furniture, lumber, and throw-away tissue products. This global marketplace (dominated by U.S. consumption) must understand how consumption of Canada’s resources is impacting not just the land in this forest but also the global climate.
A growing body of research is showing that logging, mining, oil and gas activities, and hydroelectric development in these forests are having a demonstrable effect on the ecosystem’s role as a carbon storehouse and its ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Despite this reality, there is a strong sense—bolstered by Canada and its forest industry’s public messaging—that industrial activity in the boreal forest is not creating significant environmental harms and that it is, in fact, helping to mitigate climate change. This view is based on tenuous assumptions and incomplete analyses.
* * *
To watch a complete recording of “How the Growing Industrial Footprint in Canada’s Boreal Forest Undermines Climate Protection,” please click here. This panel marked the second gathering of boreal experts organized by NRDC’s Canada Project. As part of the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018, we convened a panel to examine the global importance of earth’s northern forests in any strategy aiming to successfully confront our growing climate catastrophe.
And stay tuned for future webinars from NRDC and expert panelists on topics including persistent forest loss following intensive harvest in Canada’s boreal forest, wildfires in the boreal context, and soil carbon loss following human disturbances, among other topics.