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There’s an opportunity to deal with the growing volumes of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C.—with increased tree planting and restoration of the province’s forests—but it may be a missed opportunity, going by forecasted tree planting in B.C. and a provincial government focused
on fossil fuel development.
By Jim Stirling
Forest companies in British Columbia are facing a timber supply crunch driven by the mountain pine beetles’ devastation of mature lodgepole pine forests. An estimated 16 million hectares of B.C. forest lands have been affected by the beetle. The implications for the forest industry and forestry dependent communities are potentially profound.
Meanwhile, increasing concerns about the growing volumes of greenhouse gas emissions being pumped into the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide, are being voiced by scientists. Measurable atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have been steadily rising. The trend will only continue for the foreseeable future with the federal government’s continued support of the oil and gas industries and the B.C. Liberals’ preoccupation with the establishment of a liquefied natural gas production and exporting industry in the province.
Restoring B.C.’s forests, however, could considerably reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide imbalances and help the forest industry long term. The concept was voiced with clarity by Dr. Robert Falls, a resource and renewable energy management scientist at the University of British Columbia’s Forest Science Centre in Vancouver. “Restoring and managing forest ecosystems is the only practical means known to science to remove large, measurable tonnages of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Dr. Falls in a recent opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun.
“Over the past 20 years, forest scientists and carbon accountants have devised, tested, refined and validated robust tools to measure and substantiate those benefits. There is no question that restoring our forests and harnessing their capacity to bring dead atmospheric carbon back to life in living forest ecosystems represents a huge opportunity to create long-lived carbon removal and storage mechanisms of immense proportions,” he continued.
Dr. Falls predicts a restored and robust forest sector and a strong, responsible energy industry would result from adopting such a strategy. “B.C. has virtually all the pieces of a comprehensive solution, including leadership in forestry education, reforestation capacity, advanced satellite technologies and systems for monitoring forest and carbon dynamics, innovative carbon management policies and world class forest carbon management know-how.”
There is, however, a rather significant fly in the ointment which the UBC scientist recognizes.”These are long term projects with long term benefits and it is critical that deliveries of environmental and economic benefits to future generations—primary tenets of sustainability—be recognized, valued and accounted for in provincial carbon offset policies, regulations and programming.”
It means making the strategy work requires a sustained political will.
The federal Conservative government has been so far reluctant to impose greenhouse gas regulations on the energy industry. According to recent leaked reports, this has caused some high level federal civil servants to wave the cautionary flag. They say Canada is likely to face significant challenges to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 because of the country’s intensive and export oriented economy.
In British Columbia, the Liberal government is single mindedly piling its economic eggs into one basket. The government says developing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector in B.C. will generate up to 75,000 new jobs in the province and sustain a $100 billion prosperity fund during the next 30 years.
For that to happen, the Liberals are counting on the establishment of at least five LNG plants in B.C. None of the consortia investigating B.C.’s LNG potentials and advantages have made a final investment decision. The gas remains in the ground. The consortia are hedging their bets. They are seeing what deals can be made and tax and other concessions granted in jurisdictions competing with B.C. It places pressure on B.C. to match or better them in return for the investment.
Depending on how this high stakes poker game plays out, millions of additional tonnes of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere will result from the proposed LNG facilities and natural gas and oil pipelines the provincial government wants to see.
But as the provincial government courts the energy industry, it thwarts the restoration and management of B.C.’s forest lands. To embark on the forest restoration and management process Dr. Falls spoke about includes investing in forest lands and planting more trees and the most appropriate ones to suit an altered and warmer landscape. It doesn’t appear that is going to begin in 2014. “Based on sowing request data for planting in 2014, the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association (WSCA) is forecasting approximately 240 million seedlings planted in B.C.,” reports John Betts, the association‘s executive director.
The anticipated 240 million seedlings are similar to the 2013 planting levels with the largest seedling numbers planted in the southern interior, followed by the northern interior, and the coast region trailing. Annual tree planting in B.C. topped 260 million in 2007, plunged between 2009 and 2011 before modestly recovering in 2012 and 2013.
Interesting statistically—but worrying from a recruiting perspective for the silvicultural industry—tree planting wages have been in decline since 2003 and piecework rates are half what they were in 2000.
Pine plantation management and stocking standards were a timely subject for discussion at the at WSCA’s 2014 annual convention held in Kelowna, B.C. Timber supply challenges may require the planting of pine seedlings at much higher densities in some of the province’s TSAs, suggested a panel of government and industry foresters. The panel also noted the appraisal system and post free growing inventory concerns were among other issues requiring attention. “At stake is the future timber supply and public confidence in our ability to manage forests for the long term,” warned the conference round-up notes.
The provincial government is facing increasing costs and demands from most other sectors of the B.C. economy, led by health and education. The forest industry is nowhere near the head of the funding queue from the government’s perspective. Barring a sea-change in priority and planning from both Ottawa and Victoria, it seems Dr. Fall’s eminently sensible approach to forest land restoration and carbon dioxide retention will become just another good idea mired by a political agenda and will be effectively stalled.