Forestry Implications of a Low Carbon Economy


Chair of the Forest Practices Board of BC
hosted by the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association
April 23, 2008
Seaside Centre, Sechelt

Forests used to be a “fibre basket.” But forests are now seen as a source of energy as well as material, with their value measured in “energy equivalence of biomass.” Where we used to talk about allowable annual cuts to produce sawlogs, composite boards and pulp, we are now talking about carbon sequestration, commercial biofuels and tradable carbon credits.

Right now the BC forestry industry faces a slump in the American housing market, the mountain pine beetle kill, the end of old growth supplies, and the rise of the Canadian dollar. And as fibre mills shrink their output, ancillary outputs such as chips for pulp and hog fuel are also in short supply. In dire straits, some forest companies are turning their privately held productive forest land into real estate–covering a bottom line shortfall by “selling the furniture.” And while some still think this is merely a vicious trough in a notoriously cyclical industry, others believe this is part of a change of planetary dimensions.

In recent days I have noted six major themes in the net chatter and news feeds:

  • peak oil
  • crumbling agriculture, and the impact of biofuel production on food supplies
  • accelerating climate change
  • accelerating food consumption and shortages in emerging economies
  • failing financial markets
  • the overwhelming importance of water

In BC and most of the world we have no coherent strategy to deal with the health of the planet. The UN is calling for accelerated food aid. Climate scientists are calling for greenhouse gas limits. Forestry critics are calling for land tenure reform (in all types of forests). Energy industrialists are suggesting a change from using food grade corn and soybeans for biodiesel to using cellulose.

And large oil corporations are thinking ahead to their long term need to guarantee access to biomass supplies, as they currently control petroleum sources. They are beginning to form partnerships with agriculture and forestry companies to secure the biomass resource base.

As a province, BC is among the North American leaders in taking initiatives. We are legislating carbon taxes and cap and trade. The public sector has been given greenhouse gas targets. We have a bioenergy strategy to encourage energy production from forest biomass, especially the pine beetle debris. We have a policy of “no net deforestation” and have banned coal fired electricity generation without carbon sequestration. And we’re encouraging alternate power developments.

However, this is a period of dissonance. We’re still building an economy that depends on natural gas, and on mining and exporting coal to be burned in China and Japan. Meanwhile, we are also beginning to realize that our forests are essential not just for resource extraction, but for our water supply, our climate, as a source of critical biodiversity, and for all those other social, economic and spiritual values which are degraded by competitive, overlapping uses.

Technological optimists believe we can invent our way out of the current crises with biomass, genetically engineered food crops, nanomaterials, green buildings, public transit and electric cars. But all of the major energy intensive countries are continuing on an exponentially rising curve of energy consumption, while our fisheries collapse, arctic ice retreats and food riots begin. We cannot escape the cumulative impacts of an inflated population and a globalized economy subsidized by fossil fuels.

While BC is not immune to climate change, we have the basis of resilience. Our climate is expected to be less affected than many others, and we have an abundance of natural resources. We also have professional expertise, committed citizens, and First Nations who have strong ties to the land. Our forestry industry is accustomed to reforesting the land it harvests and understands the need to protect public water supplies and manage for biodiversity. We also have legal tools regarding tree farms, replanting, wildlife habitat, old growth management, parks, watersheds, grazing areas, recreation, campsites, and ecological reserves.

Our system is not perfect, but there are few places in the world that are as thorough in trying to manage a natural forest. We have an opportunity to husband our forests in the face of global change and practice the art of stewardship at a level needed to face the challenge.

To do this we must forestall making our forest into a tradable financial commodity controlled outside this province by companies with no stake in the long term. The phrase “highest and best use” generally means the greatest short term return on a financial investment, such as converting productive forest into real estate. But that money cannot buy back lost productive soils, lost water sources, or lost biodiversity.

We need a more mature land ethic. Forestry is locked into an international commodities market that abandons local communities. We need to reform our tenure system to ensure that lands are permanently managed by the people who live and work there and who have a direct stake in their productivity, security, health and balance. Community forests which are sufficiently large and managed for more than just fibre extraction, could be a basis for such a system. The new economy will extract from a forest within its carrying capacity, not for a quick rate of return.

This does not preclude having some large industrial players. In fact, we need them to create the economies of scale that pay the freight for our societal infrastructure. But they do not need to own or control all the available productive land in order to be able to operate. And there also needs to be room for small and medium-scale operations that serve local markets, produce specialties for export, and use wood intensely for high added value while keeping a light footprint on the land.

How we’ll do this is difficult to quantify because there are many questions, and research on forests is necessarily slow. What is the net carbon uptake of different types and ages of trees? What is the effect of clearcuts? Are biofuels really carbon neutral? What should we be planting given that the climate will change in 40-50 years? Will the Okanagan support forests in the future? Is it best to convert some forest lands to agriculture?

Water, fibre, energy and food are the basic needs our civilization depends on. We will be challenged to design and re-design our land uses to maintain fundamental forest values as the physical environment shifts beneath our feet and our economy adapts.

This is not beyond our talent and it should not be beyond our imagination.

Scroll to Top