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Why We Can’t Fight Climate Change without an Intact Boreal Forest

The answer lies not just in the carbon-capturing trees but also in the undisturbed boreal soils.

Gord McKenna/Flickr

The future health of the planet depends heavily on one vast ring of trees: the boreal forest, which spans nearly the entire globe just below the Arctic Circle. In addition to being one of the world’s greatest remaining stretches of wilderness, home to many vulnerable species, the forest stores an enormous amount of carbon. Some experts calculate that the boreal holds at least 22 percent of earth’s land-based carbon. Upsetting that ecosystem and casting that carbon back into the atmosphere would undermine efforts to limit global warming. Bottom line: Keeping the boreal intact is crucial to the fight against climate change.

The Crucial Role of Trees

You might assume that 10,000 trees hold the same amount of carbon whether they’re grouped together or fragmented. They’re all made up of wood and bark and leaves. But trees also protect soil—and in the average forest, microbes and other elements of the soil hold more than twice as much carbon as the trees themselves. In the boreal forest, the ratio is even higher, thanks in part to the region’s extensive peat bogs.

Forest degradation unlocks the carbon stored in the soil in a variety of ways that scientists are still exploring. Bacteria and other small organisms rely on leaf litter and other detritus that fall from trees for food, and logging starves the microscopic organisms of that sustenance. Tree harvesting destroys the forest’s root system, which is intimately involved in the process of carbon capture and storage that occurs in the soil. Growing conditions for the soil-based microbes also change dramatically when the tree canopy gets wiped out: The sunlight hitting the ground increases. The temperature rises. The animals that scratch, peck, and leave their droppings in the soil disappear. The microbes that evolved to live in a dark, nutrient-rich, root-ringed environment are suddenly not suited to the new conditions. As those microbial populations contract and change, carbon flows out of the soil—and into the air.

Carbon loss from disturbed forest soils is extremely difficult to quantify because, after an immediate spike, it takes decades for all the carbon deep beneath the ground to make its way to the surface and into the atmosphere. At this point, scientists can say that the losses associated with deforestation and degradation are significant and long-term, but few are willing to hazard a guess at how significant, especially since tropical, temperate, and boreal forests have different microbial populations, respiration rates, and success in regenerating.

The boreal’s impact on atmospheric carbon is so significant that we actually experience it, live, every year. Scientists measure declines in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the summer because the boreal forest system is more active and therefore sucks more carbon dioxide from the air. In the winter, as respiration slows, the forest releases carbon back into the atmosphere.

The Current Threat

A fight is brewing over the future of Canada’s portion of the boreal, which alone holds approximately 200 billion tons of carbon, an amount that exceeds five years of global carbon emissions at the current rate. For years, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) has been the gold standard for sustainable management of forests around the world. The council’s detailed, region-specific standards—the standard for logging operations in the Canadian boreal exceeds 180 pages—signal to consumers via a product seal that the wood has not contributed unjustifiably to the denuding of primary forest, the destruction of important wildlife habitat, or the problem of climate change.

The council considers whether and how a logging operation seeking FSC certification would affect the carbon-storage capacity of the soil. Old-growth forests, which are extremely efficient and evolved carbon-storage systems, get special protection. In forests that are candidates for logging, the council asks questions about the crushing effects heavy machinery has on the dirt and the likelihood that changes in water patterns will erode the carbon-rich soil. In particular, applicants must minimize rutting, which is exactly what is sounds like—tracks in the soil. They also consider the loss of nutrients important to microbial communities.

All these measures promote intactness of the soil and the forest environment, and they help minimize the loss of carbon into the atmosphere. But shortly after representative government, industry, and the conservation movement created the multi-stakeholder FSC in 1992, disenchanted logging companies created an alternative standard called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. SFI looks and sounds like the FSC, but many conservationists consider it a sham. “The forestry industry created what is essentially a greenwashing system,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada program. “FSC is the only credible system. The logging companies are their own police under SFI, and that’s simply unacceptable with what’s at stake in the boreal.” According to Swift, SFI doesn’t provide sufficient protection for carbon-heavy old-growth forests, nor does it adequately consider how logging practices will affect the carbon storage in the soil. Indeed, the standards barely go beyond the legal minimum that binds logging companies in most countries, and the verification system is far more lax than that of FSC.

In the last two to three years, a coalition of Canadian logging companies, along with allies in provincial Canadian governments, has slowly edged the Forestry Stewardship Council toward the sidelines. Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products, in particular, has clashed with FSC in recent years, especially after losing certification for several of its logging sites.

The outcome of the dispute will have far-reaching implications for the fight to minimize climate change. Every year, humans cut down 15 billion of the approximately 3 trillion trees on earth—both unfathomably large numbers. The fight moving forward will focus on which trees should be cut down, when, and how. While trees are a renewable resource, intact forests aren’t—once they’re gone, they’re gone. Will these decisions be based on sound science and expert judgment, or by the commercial and lobbying power of a few major companies?

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