The Boreal Connection: The Role of Canada’s Northern Forests in Mitigating Climate Change

By Rox-Ann Duchesne

“[Humanity’s] collective actions have brought us into uncharted territory. A growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name – the Anthropocene” [1].

Increases in the intensity and rate of human activity since the dawn of the industrial revolution has effected unprecedented change on the environment, illustrated amongst other things by the cataclysmic shifts in climatic patterns whose repercussions now characterize our news feeds. These shifts exert pressure on countless environmental variables. Diligently considering, integrating, and mitigating the significance of these environmental changes within impact assessment practice is key in developing sustainable business standards, but requires an understanding of both the sources and the corollaries of climate change. An oft-forgotten ally in the climate change discussion is none other than Canada’s vast expanse of boreal forest. What exactly is its role in the global climate equation?

How does the Boreal Forest Affect Climate Change? 

Forests are central in the local and global regulation of climate and weather patterns through their ability to sequester carbon. Canada’s boreal region, which encompasses nearly 75% of Canadian forested land [2], is the most important contiguous and ecologically unspoiled forest on earth, spreading 1.3 billion acres wide [3]. It is thus one of the earth’s biggest carbon sinks, storing anywhere between 186 [4] to 208 billion metric tons of carbon [5] (estimates vary greatly). This large storage capacity alone can markedly accelerate or decelerate the progression of climate change through its influence on global carbon cycles [6].

Through forest stands, permafrost, peat mosses and wetlands, and the boreal forest captures and stores double the quantities of carbon than its tropical counterpart [7][8]. Cooler northern climates inhibit the decay of dead biomass, allowing a slow accumulation of carbon over time [7][9]. Peatlands and wetlands, 30% of the Canadian boreal makeup, offer a shocking return on investment. Globally, they represent a mere 3% of land coverage, but sequester 30% of global terrestrial carbon stocks [10]. In Canada, carbon stored in peatlands represents roughly 26 years of global emissions derived from fossil fuel [5].

Source: author

“Peatland is 95 percent water. This means that peat is wetter than milk but you can walk over it. It’s the closest you can get to Jesus Christ.” [5]

However, according to recent research, most carbon sinks are located below ground, in the permafrost soils of the higher latitudes. Affectionately coined “carbon bombs,” the vast carbon reserves stored in the frozen grounds beneath the circumpolar boreal forests have been logistically difficult to quantify. Liberal estimates, all nations confounded, suggest 1.6 trillion metric tons are buried beneath our glacial feet [11], prompting scientists to commend even greater reductions in worldwide fossil fuel emissions in efforts to stave off the ticking carbon time bomb roused by thaw.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isPGjChdby8

Despite being the largest terrestrial ecosystem, and one of the world’s most extensive biomes, boreal forests remain routinely overlooked in climate change discussions [7], and hardly figure in global carbon accounting [10]. Estimates and available modelling on the inventory and the storage capacity of the various plant communities of the boreal ecosystem vary greatly [12], exacerbating the difficulties in defining accounting matrices for use in environmental assessment and in crafting opportunities for carbon sequestration and trading [6].

Nevertheless, every year, Canada’s boreal habitat increasingly succumbs to loss and degradation, with spruce groves yielding to commercial harvest, giving in to energy exploitation and development projects, or simply conceding to the rise of insect infestations and the increased instances and severity of forest fires brought on by climate change. Formalized cap-and-trade partnerships like California and Quebec’s recent endeavour are a positive step in the effort to reduce emissions, but a parallel strategy to protect our northern heritage needs to be incorporated within market-based initiatives to properly and sustainably harness its value.

References

[1] [Author Unknown]. (n.d.). Welcome to the Anthropocene. Retrieved from http://www.anthropocene.info/en/anthropocene

[2] Nature Conservancy Canada. Boreal Forest. Retrieved from http://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/what-we-do/forest-conservation/boreal-forest.html

[3] Nature Conservancy Canada. Boreal Forest Agreement: Striking an Accord for People and Nature. Retrieved from http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/canada/explore/boreal-forest-agreement.xml

[4] American Museum of Natural History. (2010, August 19). Science Bulletins: The Ecology of Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isPGjChdby8

[5] Biello, D. (2009, December 8). Peat and Repeat: Can Major Carbon Sinks Be Restored by Rewetting the World’s Drained Bogs? Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peat-and-repeat-rewetting-carbon-sinks/

[6] Bhatti, J.S. et al. (2003). Carbon Balance and Climate Change in Boreal Forests. In Burton, P.J., et al. (Eds.), Towards Sustainable Management of the Boreal Forest (pp. 799-855). Retrieved from http://www.uoguelph.ca/~mrtlab/mrtlab/Publications_files/Bhatti%20et%20al.%202003%20(C%20chapter).pdf

[7] Carlson, M., Wells, J., & Roberts, D. (2009). The Carbon the World Forgot. Retrieved from the Boreal Songbird Initiative website: http://www.borealbirds.org/sites/default/files/pubs/report-full.pdf

[8] Petersen, R., Sizer, N., & Lee, P. (2014, July). Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. World Resources Institute. Retrieved from http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/07/tar-sands-threaten-world’s-largest-boreal-forest

[9] Biello, D. (2008, September 11). Old-Growth Forests Help Combat Climate Change. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/old-growth-forests-help-combat-climate-change/

[10] International Boreal Conservation Campaign. (n.d.). Carbon Storage in Canada’s Boreal Forest. Retrieved from http://mbwatercaucus.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/BorealForest-CarbonMaps.pdf

[11] Kintisch, E. (2012, December 7). Ticking Arctic Carbon Bomb May Be Bigger Than Thought. Science. Retrieved from http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2012/12/ticking-arctic-carbon-bomb-may-be-bigger-thought

[12] Carlowicz, M. (2012, January 9). Seeing Forests for the Trees and the Carbon: Mapping the World’s Forests in Three Dimensions. Retrieved from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/ForestCarbon/