Canada’s Forests: Another tool to use against climate change

This is a guest post from David Childs with the Boreal Songbird Initiative.


Global warming has proven to be a difficult issue to grasp. New findings about the way increasing temperatures affect our lives and environment seem to be coming out on a near daily basis. Just in the past few weeks new information linking global warming with increased tree death rates in the Western United States and Canada has come out, raising many alarms about the health and safety of our forests.

While solutions to this worsening crisis continue to be debated, Andrew Weaver, a lead scientist for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), points out one minimally disputed way to mitigate climate change: protect Canada’s Boreal forest. While many Americans pay little attention to our northern neighbor, Canadian forests play an integral role in the fight against climate change. Here is his op-ed, which was printed in the Ottawa Citizen and the Victoria Times Colonist:

Living in times of unprecedented climate change has given way to new uncertainties. Every day, new evidence points to fundamental changes in our natural world. Most recently, there is more news that warming temperatures are killing our forests (see “Environment Blamed in Western Tree Deaths,” New York Times, 1/22/09).

It’s tempting to respond with radical new approaches to forestry beyond our base of knowledge. But a conservative, responsible outlook demands we take a deliberate accounting of what we know and what we can control. And that scientific accounting points decisively toward the most effective option within our control — increased boreal forest conservation.

Global warming is likely to increase the rate of fires and insect damage in Canada’s forests. This will increase the amount of carbon released due to natural events that are beyond our immediate control.

But apart from fire and insects, there are measures that we can readily control. We can reduce forest-related carbon emissions by reducing industrial disturbance in our forests.

Canada’s boreal forest plays a unique role in the global carbon equation. Stretching across our north, our boreal forest stores more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem on earth making it the world’s largest terrestrial carbon storehouse.

The more we disturb our boreal forest with increased industrial activity, the more stored carbon is released. To mitigate global warming we should be finding ways to decrease carbon released from industrial disturbance, not increase them as some are suggesting.

In a future affected by global warming, our boreal forests have other important roles to play in addition to storing carbon.

Forest birds and wildlife will need to shift their distributions northward in order to survive. This necessary migration will be eased by leaving large northern forest ecosystems intact. Limiting disturbance will help maintain the resiliency of our forests to adapt to global warming.

Last year, I was one of the 1,500 scientists from around the globe who urged Canada’s governments to do as much as possible to protect Canada’s vast boreal forest. I continue to advise the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, a scientifically driven project of the Pew Charitable Trusts that recommends protection for at least half of Canada’s boreal forest.

Scientists worldwide recognize that Canada’s boreal forest is one of largest, most intact old-growth forests left on Earth. Rivaling the Amazon rainforest in size and ecological value, the boreal forest provides globally important, irreplaceable ecosystem services. These include tremendous carbon sequestration and storage capacity, vast reserves of fresh water, the world’s most extensive wetlands, and habitat for enormous, healthy populations of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl, songbirds and caribou.

There has been much recent progress in parts of Canada to increase protections of the boreal region with commitments to protect tens of millions of acres from industrial disturbance. For example, the government of Ontario recently promised to permanently protect 55 million acres of boreal forest, one of the biggest land protection commitments in history. This commitment was largely motivated by the opportunity to protect the forest’s enormous stores of carbon.

As we learn more about global warming, we continue to recognize that decreasing industrial emissions of carbon is always the No. 1 priority. In Canada, we have the additional opportunity and responsibility to be effective carbon stewards by maintaining large areas of our boreal forest off-limits to industrial disturbance.

Protecting our large carbon stocks and other values in our boreal forest is a crucial tool in our fight against the negative impacts of global warming that is readily within our reach.

Andrew Weaver is a professor and Canada Research Chair in climate modeling and analysis at the University of Victoria. He was a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and advises the Pew Charitable Trust’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign ( His most recent book is Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.

While tropical rainforests like the Amazon have drawn notable attention in climate change conversations and conventions, Canada’s Boreal forest still goes mostly unnoticed by the public and international policy makers. This is despite the fact that the Boreal stores 27 years worth of the world’s carbon emissions. As mentioned by Dr. Weaver, there have been some forward steps toward conserving the Boreal forest — namely Ontario’s commitment to protect 50% of its Boreal forest and a similar target expected soon from the province of Quebec. But there is still much to be done, and protecting Canada’s Boreal forest should remain a top priority in this complex international effort. For more information on the way the Boreal forest helps combat climate change, please visit the International Boreal Conservation Campaign’s page on global warming.

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12 Responses to Canada’s Forests: Another tool to use against climate change

  1. K. Nockels says:

    Are some of these forestes being cut down to access tar sands? Do we know the impact of the extra emmissons related to Syn-fuel production on the Borea Forests in Canada? Could the tar sands production be at the root of some of the loss of productive carbon capture of the near by Boreal Forests? If we could only get people to realise the worth of these free to us natural carbon sinks. I think that to get the point across we will need to place a dollar value on all the natural processes that store carbon and have their value in dollars accessed. I hate that it has to come down to placing a dollar value on things that I consider priceless but I guess that”s how it will have to be. I know Cap and Trade is suppose to do this but unless the scientists that know these eco systems well, and it can be updated as we learn more about each one I can’t see it working. The only way is no politics on the pricing and doing it on the eco system as a whole not just the carbon. I fear however that by the time we get to that point it will be mute. Those eco systems will have changed so much from the warming we get in the mean time they will no longer be carbon sinks but carbon souces.

  2. Brian M says:

    Let’s hope somebody can talk some sense into Alberta before all of her Boreal forests are destroyed digging for tar sands in the name of continuing the life of happy motoring.


  3. A hopeful mechanism. Thanks.

    Between the forests and the now liquid Arctic Ocean lie the vast thawing permafrosts that vent methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.

    Excellent article today in the LATimes,0,646220.story

    Are we still underestimating this problem?

  4. @ K. Nockels…

    Yes, to access the tar sands — an area larger than England — they are cutting down a large swathe of boreal forest. So the tar sands are a triple loss… and a horrible travesty any way you slice it.

    Andrew Weaver is terrific. I found his book insightful, and he’s been a wonderful source of encouragement for some of the projects I’ve taken on.

  5. doug says:

    It’s worth mentioning the trade-off between carbon storage and albedo. Some have estimated that the effects of large fires in the northern boreal forests may not be as bad as once thought because: (1) the fires don’t consume all the carbon. Some remains in the form of large unburned wood, and (2) when dark green forests are replaced by reflective white snow, much of the carbon emissions from forest losses will be compensated by the negative feedback provided by increased albedo. We should certainly protect boreal forests from logging and tar sand exploitation etc, but when large boreal forest fires inevitably occur, there’s no need to freak out.

  6. Alex J says:

    Doug, I’d need to see what percentage of the carbon remains in a high-intensity fire before I thought point 1 was very significant. And some figures on the net effect of bare/brush-covered land vs. trees for point 2. After a fire, it’s likely that reforestation will end up restoring much of the original albedo. At least until the next intense fire (with climate change, perhaps in a more vulnerable stand, subject to more complete combustion). And snow isn’t quite a year-round thing, yet CO2 added to the accumulation is doing it’s work 24/7/365. So I wonder if the estimates gauge all that, and with any degree of confidence. And whether in aggregate the decline of carbon sinks and reservoirs can really be compensated for by albedo effects in a warming world.

  7. paulm says:

    Did Obama come up here yet? I must have missed it in the Canadian news…wow!
    Whats going on?

    Heads in the tar sands
    Barack Obama and Stephen Harper’s clean energy dialogue doesn’t acknowledge that Canadian oil is a necessary evil

  8. doug says:

    To answer some of Alex J’s questions see:

    It’s true that albedo is a seasonal thing, but the further north one goes the longer the snow season lasts.

    See Randerson, J.T., Liu H, Flanner MG, et al. 2006. The Impact of Boreal Forest Fire on Climate Warming. SCIENCE. 314(5802):1130-2. Nov 17, 2006.
    This modeling study showed there was approximate balance between the warming effect of CO2 emitted form boreal fires and the cooling effect of increased albedo related to the loss forest cover

    See also G. Bala, K. Caldeira, M. Wickett, T. J. Phillips, D. B. Lobell, C. Delire, and A. Mirin. Combined climate and carbon-cycle effects of large-scale deforestation. PNAS | April 17, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 16 | 6550-6555.

    I am not arguing that loss of boreal forests is inconsequential. There are a lot of good reasons to protect forests even if the climate impacts of forest loss in far northern boreal forests are a wash.

  9. Some denialists think that, if Iowa turns into a desert, we can just cut down the Canadian forest and plant corn and beans. If the present farm belt does turn into a desert, the pressure to farm the forest will be too great to resist.
    The only way to save the forest is to stop global warming.

  10. Alex J says:

    Interesting stuff, Doug (at least the first, functional, link). I’ll have to look into the reviews some time. Uncertainty seems to remain on whether a long-term reduction in that sink would be fully offset by higher albedo in the future, particularly when aerosol/cloud condensation effects are considered.

    A.M., you might be interested in this regarding agriculture and the assumption that the far north will compensate:

  11. Sam says:

    For another recent piece on connections between CC, drought and fire, see
    Among others, Tim Flannery is quoted: “I had not appreciated the difference a degree or two of extra heat and a dry soil can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was different from anything seen before.”

  12. David Childs says:

    Hey Joe, thanks for posting this – the role forests play in mitigating warming is getting some attention, but not enough in my opinion! Keep up the good work, I love your blog!