Millions of acres of boreal forest — one of the largest storehouses of carbon on Earth — will be protected under a groundbreaking truce in Canada that ends years of fighting over logging rights between forest companies and environmental and Native American groups.
This week, the 21 member companies of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and nine green groups inked a deal outlining the immediate suspension of new logging and road building on almost 72 million acres of forest and sustainable harvesting practices on tens of millions more.
"This is a global event in its size," said Avram Lazar, president and CEO of FPAC, which manages two-thirds of Canada’s forest lands. "Forest practices are going to be improved over an area the size of Texas," he told reporters.
Steven Kallick, director of the boreal conservation campaign for the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, one of the groups leading the coalition, called it "the greatest accomplishment in the history of forest conservation" — not least because of the climate benefits it would provide.
The NGO signatories all seem to agree that the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, as it’s called, would help in the worldwide fight against warming. Deforestation accounts for around 20 percent of human-caused emissions, according to UN figures.
Forests serve as crucial carbon sinks, soaking up climate-changing carbon dioxide when they grow, and spewing it back into the atmosphere when they are burnt down or decay. This is particularly true of the super carbon-absorbing boreal lands, which extend some 6.4 million square millions across the Northern Hemisphere.
With their cold and deep permafrost soils and peatlands, boreal forests have long been thought to lock in more carbon gas than tropical rainforests. Recent studies support this belief.
More Carbon Than Tropical Forests
According to a 2009 report by Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, carbon-dense boreal lands store nearly twice as much CO2 as typical tropical forests per hectare. Currently, 703 gigatons of carbon are locked up in these woodlands, the study says, representing 22 percent of all the carbon stored on the planet’s surface. The world’s tropical forests, meanwhile, contain 375 gigatons.
"[The boreal forest] rivals the Amazon in size and ecological importance," Kallick said. It is "absolutely critical to protecting biological diversity worldwide."
Only about 10 percent of the world’s boreal forests is under protection, however, according to recent research in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Russia — home to some 60 percent of the boreal forest — is considered the world’s worst offender in this regard.
Canada’s share of the boreal is about 30 percent and covers around 760 million acres. The 79-million-acre stretch now under protection reaches from the province of British Columbia up to Newfoundland.
According to Richard Brooks, a forests campaign manager for Greenpeace and spokesperson for the NGO signatories, that soon-to-be-off-limits area has about 20 billion tons of greenhouse gases amassed in its carbon-eating soils and trees. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 18 billion cars, Brooks said, or about 18 times the number of vehicles on the world’s roads today.
‘Last Chance’ to Protect Boreal from Warming
Brooks said the deal, over two years in the making, represents the "last chance to permanently protect large areas of forests that will be durable in the face of climate change."
Beyond that, said Lazar, the deal will green up logging operations on the nearly 180 million acres of public forests licensed to FPAC members and "reassure global buyers of our products’ sustainability."
FPAC pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "along the full life cycle from forest to end-of-product life."
"With this plan, we’re going to take a full lifecycle approach, working with the environmental community to set the bar for the global community on climate change," Lazar said.
Canada’s forest products are a $54 billion-dollar-a-year industry and account for almost 2 percent of the nation’s GDP. The industry also represents 11 percent of Canadian manufacturing, according to figures from Statistics Canada, the national statistics agency.
To win industry support, Greenpeace and Canadian forestry groups Canopy and ForestEthics ended their years-long "Do-Not-Buy" campaign, designed to press companies not to buy paper made from illegally logged trees or endangered forests.
"It really is a truce after many years of fighting each other," said Brooks.
Logging Industry Sees Green Future
"Welcome to the world of tomorrow," said Lazar, where "environmental progress gets translated into market advantage."
"Old think was to say it’s either the environment or the economy. That kind of distinction just doesn’t hold anymore," Lazar said. "The best way – the only way – to make a living in the future is going to be by being environmentally advanced."
Lazar believes that with the public spotlight on sustainable forestry, customers will soon understand that illegal loggers and suppliers of wood and paper that have not addressed climate change are "at the back of the line."
"This [agreement] is a business strategy for us. We know where the future is and the marketplace is going to reward the environmentally progressive," he added.
"FPAC and its 21 members companies are responding to the demand for greener products," Brooks said.
Chris Henschel, national manager for the non-profit Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, one of the signatories, said the deal commits the forestry giants to "world-leading sustainable forest management."
It’s "real and significant," Henschel told SolveClimate, adding that the truce represents "progressive domestic policy on climate change" and "promotion of Canada’s forest sector as green in the global marketplace."
‘World-Leading’ Forestry Sector Sets Bar Higher
For a nation that is daily battered in the press for dirty tar sands mining in Alberta and lackluster commitment to UN global warming negotiations, the Boreal deal’s positive climate-fighting publicity could not have come fast enough.
According to Lazar, Canada already boasts "world leading forest practices." But this week’s deal, he said, will "reset the bar higher."
In October 2007, FPAC announced its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2015, without the purchase of offsets.
Canada’s rate of deforestation, meanwhile, is less than 0.02 percent per year on average and is largely due to agriculture, urban development, transportation, recreation and hydroelectricity. Forest loss in the Amazon of Brazil in recent years has been around .35 percent annually — almost 20 times higher — with cattle ranching a leading cause.
Already, trees harvested on Canada’s public lands must be successfully regenerated according to the law. At around 99 million acres, Canada is said to have the most protected forest area in the world. Further, some 60 percent of the total energy used by the forestry sector comes from renewable fuels, according to FPAC.
Brooks said the odds of success of the Boreal agreement are "very solid," driven at least in part by a fear of public embarrassment. As part of the deal, an independent auditor will measure progress against a series of milestones.
"Those reports will be made public," Brooks said.
"[The reports] are going to bind the organizations who are a part of this agreement to achieving change," he added. "We don’t want to be embarrassed for not reaching our milestones. We don’t want to have people criticize us if we’re not making progress."
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(Image: Greenpeace / Richard Brooks)