Can we afford to be fickle about our forests?
By Peter Ewart
Forests are the lungs of our planet. They operate as vast reservoirs for capturing, storing, and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as well as providing oxygen. They also provide wildlife habitat, landscape stability, water storage and filtering, and other important environmental functions.
And they create a foundation for human activity and community, including manufacturing and processing, trade, scientific research, tourism, recreation and culture. In all these respects, British Columbia has a treasure in its vast, diverse and bountiful forests. At a time of rapid climate change, which, according to the prevailing view of the scientific community, has been dramatically accelerated by the proliferation of greenhouse gases (GHG) from human activity, the importance of this resource cannot be underestimated.
In terms of removing greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon from the atmosphere, trees play a key role in accumulating and sequestering these gases through photosynthesis which converts them into organic matter, energy and oxygen. It is estimated that BC’s 55 million hectares of forest store “approximately 6 to 7 billion tonnes of carbon” and remove huge amounts from the atmosphere every year (1).
In that regard, a large amount of carbon is also stored in wood products such as lumber and pulp & paper for both short and long periods of time depending on the product.
On the other hand, forests also emit GHGs through respiration, decay of organic matter, forest fires, fuel burning, and landfills.
As noted by various scientists, “a forest is considered a source of GHGs when it emits more GHGs than it removes from the atmosphere, whereas it is considered a sink when it removes more than it emits” (2). It follows that it is in the interest of humanity and the planet to have our forests function more as sinks rather than sources. In that regard, how we manage our forests is key.
According to a report (1) released in January of 2016 and provided to participants at a recent workshop at UNBC, there are three main categories to mitigate or reduce GHGs and atmospheric carbon: “(1) maintain or increase forest areas, (2) maintain or increase forest carbon density (the amount of carbon stored per hectare of forest), and (3) increase the use of wood.”
In other words, we need to invest more time, energy, research, innovation and funding into forest management in British Columbia. The benefits that will flow from such an investment not only impact GHG and carbon mitigation, but also job creation and economic development, community viability (both First Nations and non-First Nations), and environmental and cultural values. We have the opportunity to further advance our province, as well as make a contribution to humanity.
Indeed, in the face of various serious challenges, including economic and environmental, British Columbia has the opportunity with its renewable forest resource to be a world leader in GHG mitigation and sequestration, as well as wood manufacturing, development of new wood products, environmental and cultural preservation, and other diverse uses.
For over 100 years, our forest resource has provided much of the backbone of the provincial economy and the foundation of many communities. Going back thousands of years, it has provided a way of life and a means of sustenance for First Nations peoples.
However, in the last provincial election in 2012, this historic contribution, as well as the great opportunity our forests now provide in terms of carbon mitigation and economic development, was not put front and centre as should have happened. Not by a long shot.
Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of LNG and fossil fuels taking centre stage with the provincial government promising 100,000 jobs, a $100 billion prosperity fund, and the elimination of the provincial debt, along with other grandiose promises. Forests and the forest industry were sidelined once again, part of a trend of diminishing the focus on our forests and forest industry, whether by slashing funding for reforestation and silviculture, removing oversight of the forests, and other cutbacks.
What is especially galling is that forestry is a renewable resource, while LNG and fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource that threatens our planetary environment through GHG emissions, fracking, pollution, and other problems.
Yet, despite its renewability and great possibility, a view often prevails that forestry is somehow a sunset industry and, despite no results so far in terms of committed projects, that the future lies with LNG. But the opposite is actually true. And that environmental and economic reality is being driven home every day.
The dictionary defines the word “fickle” as that which is “inconstant or changeable in loyalty.” Our forests have served us well for thousands of years and will likely do so forever. Can we afford to have governments and political parties that are fickle towards them or that are dazzled and blinded by the glow of gas flares?
Will our next provincial election prioritize our forests and their importance for our future or will once again will we be subject to fickleness and the flavor of the day? That is a question that needs to be asked again and again in the lead up to the 2017 election.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com
- Peterson St-Laurent, Guilllaume & George Hoberg. “Climate change mitigation options in British Columbia’s Forests: A primer.” Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. January 2016.
- Natural Resources Canada. Is Canada’s forest a carbon sink or source? Canadian Forest Service Science Policy Notes 2007 [cited 2015 March 5].