The world’s forests are finally getting their day in the sun. As the cheapest and most efficient way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, they are a climate change solution already at work. Via photosynthesis, trees and plants in forests absorb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and release oxygen, acting as the “lungs of the earth.” At the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco earlier this month, the announcement of new initiatives like the 30 x 30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge and the Nature 4 Climate campaign helped to highlight the tremendous opportunity that an increased focus on protecting and restoring our forest and agricultural areas presents to meaningfully mitigate climate change.
But there’s a side to the story that still isn’t getting the attention it needs. At the GCAS, NRDC gathered a group of prominent experts and advocates who work to defend the ecosystems—and the carbon—of the world’s northern forests. The event, titled “The Northern Forests: Defusing a Global Carbon Bomb and Conserving an Essential Climate Mitigation Tool,” brought together representatives working in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Alaska.*
Their message: Forests don’t just absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere—they also safeguard huge stores of carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere. In fact, they hold so much carbon at bay in their plants, soils, wetlands, and peatlands, that even if a small portion of it were ever released, it would dwarf all of the emissions we anticipate from the burning of fossil fuel reserves under production. In short, forests are growing on top of a carbon bomb whose fuse must be extinguished. To do that, we have to prevent the continued degradation of intact forests around the world, especially the boreal forest and the temperate forests that abut its southern borders.
Through presentations and a spirited discussion with audience members, the panelists shined a light on this forgotten piece of the climate puzzle. A few of their key points included:
- The world’s northern forests—the global boreal and the temperate forests just to its south—hold more than half of the carbon stored in all forests globally. By comparison, tropical forests hold about 37 percent.
- The case for keeping this carbon locked up cannot be stronger: there is 35% more carbon in the northern forests alone than in all of the world’s economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves.
- Canada and Russia have a huge role to play in protecting boreal carbon reserves, as more than 80 percent of the global boreal forest grows in these two countries alone.
- Industrial activity in the boreal forests of Russia and Canada is a big problem—up to half of the forested area has been or is slated to be degraded by clearcutting, mining, road-building, hydro-electric development, or oil and gas production.
- Large areas of forest are being cut to be turned into biomass pellets, which are then exported—currently to Europe—to be burned in electricity generating stations. The practice is can be more carbon intensives than burning coal but is treated by many governments as “carbon neutral.” If this industry continues to grow, it could imperil huge areas of the world’s northern forests.
- Intact forest areas and primary forests are being fragmented and lost at an astonishing rate, even though these forests help to keep northern latitudes cooler and are more resilient to the threat of wildfire and to the warming caused by global climate change.
- Despite global campaigns in the 1990s that successfully expanded protections for key forests like the Great Bear Rainforest, other critical areas like British Columbia’s inland temperate rainforests are still being decimated by logging and need to be protected.
- The knowledge and leadership of Indigenous Peoples, who have lived in northern forests for millennia, are vital to creating lasting, meaningful solutions to ensure forests are protected for future generations.
It is particularly important to protect the world’s northern forests, which are dominated by the global boreal forest. These forests are particularly carbon-dense, and their degradation would be catastrophic for the climate. Yet, industrial activities like logging, mining, and oil and gas production have already lit the fuse on the carbon bomb lying beneath them, exacerbated by human-induced climate change.
As the panelists emphasized, forests provide countless invaluable benefits to all life on earth, and it is past time that we acknowledge this fact with expanded protection and restoration of these critical resources. These vast areas are essential defenses against runaway climate change. If we don’t protect them, these forests could turn from our closest climate allies into carbon bombs. At this late hour, we cannot afford to continue degrading these precious ecosystems. To do this, government, industry, and the marketplace must take concrete and decisive steps toward preserving the intact forests we have left and restoring what we’ve lost if we hope to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change.
*The panel was moderated by NRDC’s Chief Program Officer, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz and included Anthony Swift, Director of NRDC’s Canada Project; Joanna Kerr, Executive Director of Greenpeace Canada; Dr. Evgeny Shvarts, Director of Conservation Policy at WWF Russia, and Dr. Dominick DellaSala, President and Chief Scientist at Geos Institute.
To watch a replay of NRDC’s Northern Forests panel, please visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I81NsOMKfO4 (panel begins at 28 minutes)