Climate and Caribou: Canadian Boreal Protection Helps Both

This post was written by Courtenay Lewis, Canada Project Consultant

Two Problems, Joint Solution

Last week, two new reports shed light on the dangerous consequences of clearcutting Canada’s boreal forest.  On Tuesday, Canada’s federal government released a report showing that Canada’s provinces are failing to prevent boreal caribou habitat loss, and that consequently caribou populations are declining. The next day, NRDC published a new report illustrating that boreal forest clearcutting is undermining Canada’s efforts to combat climate change, by adding annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those of 5.5 million vehicles to the country’s already accounted-for emissions.

Rather than falling short in both its climate and biodiversity commitments, Canada can protect boreal caribou and help mitigate climate change through a key policy solution: preserving large intact areas of boreal forest through caribou range protection plans.

Logging’s Impacts on Caribou

Last week, Canada’s federal government announced that boreal caribou populations are declining across the country, and that all provinces failed a requirement, set five years ago, to finalize protection plans for caribou habitat. In its five-year progress report on boreal caribou, the government highlighted that habitat disturbances across the boreal forest have resulted in a further drop in boreal caribou populations—a species that has been assessed as “threatened” since 2000.

Boreal caribou. Ontario Government Photo.

Individual caribou populations require large areas of intact forest, which they occupy as ranges, in order to persist over time. When that habitat disappears, caribou populations decline. Scientists have shown that logging is the biggest driver of habitat loss across the boreal forest. This news is not just concerning for caribou; caribou are a “boreal bellwether;” their decline signals that the surrounding boreal ecosystem is also in trouble.

The threats highlighted in the federal report were amplified when the Globe and Mail published a letter from wildlife scientists highlighting that habitat protection will be critical for caribou to have a chance at long-term survival. The letter highlighted that the “clear and consistent results” of scientific research show that increased habitat disturbance results in a greater likelihood of boreal caribou population decline and local extinctions.  

The federal government and wildlife experts, therefore, agree that to save boreal caribou, Canada and its provinces will need to protect large areas of connected, healthy forest. The problem is, neither Canada’s federal nor provincial governments have yet taken significant action beyond recognizing that there is a problem—the federal government says it’s the provinces’ responsibility, while the provinces fail to deliver on their promises. Meanwhile, caribou range protection plans are not being implemented, and caribou populations continue to decline.

Logging and Climate Change

On the heels of the federal government’s boreal caribou update, NRDC released a report estimating that each year, clearcutting across the boreal forest releases greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the emissions of 5.5 million cars, exacerbating the global impacts of climate change and undermining Canada’s climate leadership. 2017 is on track to be the second hottest year on record, and Prime Minister Trudeau and his chief Environment Minister describe themselves as crusaders against the  worst impacts of climate change. While Canada has taken steps that it hopes will begin to lower its greenhouse gas emissions, Canada’s boreal forest clearcutting represents the proverbial “two steps back,” as it produces more emissions than the country’s annual aviation, rail, and marine freight sectors, combined with its aviation, bus, rail, and motorcycle passenger sectors.

Much of this clearcutting ends up in throwaway landfill products like tissue, toilet paper, and newsprint. But even creating wood products with longer shelf lives like lumber and furniture can produce significant lifecycle emissions. Perhaps most importantly, boreal clearcutting removes the forest’s ability to sequester carbon. Climate scientists say increasing forested areas worldwide will be critical to reducing global climate change. Canada’s boreal forest is extremely effective at storing atmospheric carbon when forested areas remain undisturbed and soils are intact. But when the forest and soils are heavily logged and degraded, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere and the forest’s ability to recover is hampered. Canada says it wants to be a climate leader, but it’s unclear how destroying one of the country’s largest natural carbon storehouses will achieve this.

Similarly, Canadian provinces like Ontario and Quebec—the provinces with the highest rates of clearcut logging in the boreal forest—are pulling the rug out from under their own climate change mitigation efforts. Quebec has increased the percentage of low-carbon energy it produces, and Ontario has phased out its coal-fired power stations. But in a single year, Quebec and Ontario’s clearcutting emissions equal around two thirds and one third, respectively, of the emission reductions those provinces promised by 2020. Quebec and Ontario are also two provinces where caribou populations continue to decline across various ranges as a consequence of logging, road-building, and mining.

Climate Change is Not an Excuse for Delayed Action

Boreal caribou habitat protection plans, with their focus on protecting large areas of intact forest, can serve the dual purpose of fighting climate change and protecting species. Not surprisingly, however, corporate trade groups like the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) have tried to make climate change an excuse for not protecting the boreal forest. One of their latest tactics has been to say, because policymakers don’t know how climate change will impact caribou, they should delay implementing plans to protect habitat. This is a dangerous argument, as climate change should be a reason to limit the degradation of the boreal forest—not provide a green light to accelerate it. As the recent wildlife scientists’ letter stated, the threat of climate change “should not detract focus from past and current rapid and wide‐spread industrial development across the ranges of many populations of boreal caribou.”

The Devil Is in the Details

Canada’s government recognizes that industrial activity in the boreal forest is decimating caribou populations, and that climate change threatens communities around the country. Caribou range conservation plans across the boreal can help to provide solutions to both these problems by protecting intact forests. In order to achieve this, Canada’s provinces will need to implement legally enforceable caribou range protections. If they don’t, to echo the Toronto Star Editorial Board, the federal government may need to use the Species at Risk Act to implement necessary caribou habitat protections.

Boreal caribou range plans should be developed in collaboration with those Indigenous Peoples whose cultures are inextricably tied to the boreal forest and whose territories cover the ranges of various herd. Canada’s governments must work with Indigenous communities to ensure that these range plans are based on Indigenous Peoples’ right to govern the use of their land. Furthermore, many Indigenous communities, who thrived in the boreal long before European settlement, have a long history of sustainably coexisting alongside caribou. Indigenous Peoples can provide unique insights into how the range plans can best protect the forest and its caribou, and how caribou conservation can provide opportunities for economic growth.

The Toronto Star’s Editorial Board stressed that without conservation action, the caribou emblazoned onto Canada’s quarters could become a symbol of “a shameful and irreversible failure.” Similarly, turning one of the world’s last great forests into lumber and throwaway products, and diminishing its potential to combat climate change, would create a regrettable legacy.

The reports from the Canadian government and NRDC reveal the need for immediate action. Rather than squander the majestic landscapes and wildlife for which it is world-renowned, Canada can help to protect the climate and its species in one fell swoop, by implementing caribou range plans to protect intact boreal forest. 

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Policy Analyst, Canada Project, International program

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