Climate change and the battle for Canada’s forests

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The centuries-old forests that dot the landscape of British Columbia, Canada’s most westerly province, have become a battleground for two schools of thought on tackling climate change: one that wants to use its biomass to produce green energy and the other concerned with protecting carbon absorbing trees.

Scientists and activists are putting increasing pressure on the provincial government to preserve old growth forests in particular, which are often rich in biodiversity and a significant store of carbon.

But escalating climate concerns have also encouraged the growth of BC’s biomass industry, which produces wood pellets that are treated as a “carbon neutral” fuel.

Major producers include power company Drax, which has sought to reinvent itself as a clean energy generator. The UK-listed company acquired Canadian wood pellet producer Pinnacle last year and plans to double pellet production and sales by 2030.

Although biofuels have become an important source of energy in the EU and Asia, some scientists are increasingly skeptical of the environmental credentials of burning wood for energy.

In British Columbia, some of the wood from old trees turns into pellets. While it remains legal, activists fear the practice is unsustainable and say it undermines biomass advocates’ argument that pellets are a responsible alternative to fossil fuels.

Some producers are concerned that the provincial government will introduce stricter harvest quotas to reduce the amount of old wood that can be harvested.

A protest camp set up on Vancouver Island to campaign against cutting down old trees © Cole Burston / AFP / Getty

British Columbia “should not issue a logging license [old] forests, ”said Michelle Connolly, director of the Conservation North advocacy group. “They have the power and they should know better,” she added.

The scale of the harvest of old trees was “insane,” said Rachel Holt, a member of the independent technical advisory group on old crops convened by the provincial government last year. “These are incredibly rare and very valuable forests. . . You cannot cut and harvest 200-year-old trees in a sustainable way, ”she said.

According to official figures, about a quarter of all forest harvested each year in British Columbia is classified as “old growth” – which generally refers to trees over 140 or 250 years old, depending on location.

The province’s dumpling industry has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, while related activities such as paper production have declined. The market has attracted investment from companies looking to convert coal-fired power plants to biomass power plants. Pellet factories typically source wood from the areas around them – much of it left over and residue from trees harvested for other purposes, the growers said.

The seven Pinnacle factories in British Columbia are surrounded by forest that includes “primary” forests – native trees and often old trees that have not been disturbed by human activities – according to an analysis of government data from Conservation North.

A recent report commissioned by Drax found that supply to two Pinnacle factories may decline due to provincial government efforts to protect old growth forests.

Drax said its Canadian pellets were “made from waste fibers that would have been burnt by the side of the road, landfilled or left to rot. Eighty percent of this fiber waste comes from sawmill residues and 20 percent from crop residues.

Map showing the forest areas around Houston, British Columbia

The area surrounding a Pinnacle factory in British Columbia, the Houston facility (roughly in the middle). Green is primary forest, red is degraded forest or land converted to another use, such as a road, white is not a given. The indicated area has a radius of approximately 50 km © Conservation North

Under pressure to rethink how old-growth forests should be managed, the provincial government commissioned an independent review in 2019. The report, released in 2020, concluded that the economy was “heavily dependent on trees harvested from primary forests. of old trees ”and presented recommendations such as postponing development in sensitive areas.

Garry Merkel, a forester, member of the region’s indigenous Tahltan nation and lead author of the report, said old-growth forests were “critical” to ecosystem health and were “not renewable,” adding: “We must think of it more like mining. “

The British Columbia Ministry of Forests said it is “committed to improving the way we take care of our forests” and will implement the report’s recommendations.

Forest industries in the region are watching closely whether more stringent restrictions will follow.

The 2020 Drax-commissioned report on the supply of Pinnacle mills said government actions to protect biodiversity and old-growth forests had “resulted in the partial removal of land from timber harvest availability.” . . in some areas harvesting is prohibited while in others it may take place on a modified basis.

Further restrictions could be “on the horizon,” according to the report.

Canfor, a lumber company and supplier to Pinnacle, hinted in documents that it harvested old wood, noting a transition “from harvesting mostly old wood to harvesting managed stands.” [of trees]Occurred after the first two decades of logging in a particular area.

Canfor said the company is “committed to practicing world-class sustainable harvesting and forest management practices” and follows “a comprehensive licensing system from the Government of British Columbia.”

Drax has converted four of the six units at its power station in Yorkshire, England, from coal to woody biomass. However, it was removed from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index in October due to a high “carbon intensity” score. Meanwhile, a Citi analyst note from December said that “we don’t fundamentally view biomass as a sustainable energy source,” reflecting concerns about treating wood pellets as environmentally friendly.

The Forest Industries Council of British Columbia said the province has “world-class sustainable harvesting and active forest management practices.” He said lumber companies were minimizing waste by selling offcuts – whether from old trees or from younger forests – to groups including paper and pellet factories.

But Merkel, the forester, said that even this approach impoverishes ecosystems, adding that “there is no waste in nature.”

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