03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will Climate Talks Give Trees the Brush Off?

As the Great White North, at its highest latitudes, continues to thaw over time, scientists are hoping that world leaders meeting next month in Copenhagen will look upon the same region with a different shade of color in mind.

Calling it the planet's "Great Green Carbon Sink," they believe the rugged boreal forest should be factored into strategies for slowing climate change and put on a par with attention being paid to forests in the tropics.

In a report just released by the Canadian Boreal Initiative, titled "The Carbon The World Forgot," a trio of conservation biologists suggests the vast belt of forest and bogs enwrapping Canada, Scandinavia and Russia has largely been overlooked as important catchments for Earth-warming carbon dioxide.

"They're vital natural tools that can be employed to help solve a human problem," says Steve Kallick with the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, which has won the support of 1,500 scientists endorsing added protection.

When ecologists started poring over field research and peer-reviewed literature pertaining to the circumboreal region, they made a startling discovery, Mr. Kallick explains.

This portion of the globe that covers 11 percent of the Earth's land surface actually stores twice as much carbon as lush forests in the tropics.

Astoundingly, over 208 billion tons of carbon are estimated to be stored in forests and peat bogs of the north--equivalent to 26 years worth of the world's total carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning.


For a while, the value of boreal forests has been treated as an afterthought, with emphasis given to tropical swaths in Latin America, Africa and Asia because of their rich biological diversity and the rate of logging and burning taking place to make way for agricultural crops. Changes in land use, which includes removing or burning of plant material, contributes to 20 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

In the tropics, ongoing fragmentation is linked to increased desertification and loss of species. Warming is only expected to exacerbate those trends in the coming decades.

Those issues are important, Kallick says, but within the context of climate change, protecting the boreal makes good economic sense when set against an expensive backdrop of necessary action. In addition, it, too, is a region where conservation can be directly linked to empowering people left behind in the global economy.

A significant percentage of boreal Canada resides on homelands for aboriginal First Nation bands whose stewardship practices have huge implications for the environment beyond climate.

Wildlife such as caribou, wolves, bears and moose thrive in the boreal wilderness. Of continental significance is that more than five billion migratory birds, covering 300 species including huntable waterfowl, breed and nest there. Those avians are shared with Americans as they fly across the U.S. between summer and winter ranges.

Scientists say huge dividends in carbon storage can be achieved simply by leaving the boreal alone and allowing nature to do its job.


But in exchange for asking native peoples to refrain from felling forests for timber or draining peat swamps, many believe they should be compensated in whatever carbon cap or trade system is discussed in Denmark.

"As people in some countries sit on top of vast oil reserves and are compensated well for developing them, the people of the north are sitting on top of sequestered carbon and should be compensated for not developing it," Kallick says.

"They are doing the world a great service by stewarding the carbon. Comparable to the indigenous peoples in the tropics, they too live in poverty without the economic benefits of resource development."

Surprisingly, perhaps, that premise has met with relatively little organized resistance so far.

Although Canada--and, in particular, the western province of Alberta--has taken a beating for tar sands oil production that has caused massive landscape destruction and air pollution, this report praises the efforts of some Canadian province premiers.

The top elected leaders in both Ontario and Quebec, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest, recently stepped forward with unprecedented landscape protection plans, embraced by members of resource extraction industry and First Nations communities.

Some 400 million acres--a land area four times the size of California or equivalent to 200 Yellowstones-- are targeted for conservation in Canada with over half of it being placed off limits to development.

There's a reason why the boreal forest is synonymous with moose, which thrive in moist, swampy habitats. The boreal region is filled with peat bogs where vegetation accumulates when it dies and slowly decomposes in the colder conditions. The amount of carbon contained in soil, submerged underwater in bogs, and sequestered in tree roots dwarfs the amount found above ground in tree trunks and branches.

The only things likely to cause release of the carbon is drying and burning of both bogs and forests by fire.

As Kallick notes, the more unbroken stretches of habitat that exist, the better the chances of species survival. In the event of large beetle kill or fire, animals that dwell in affected areas can simply move to an adjacent area. However, when only patchworks of habitat remain in the aftermath of industrial logging, the probability of species persistence drops dramatically.
The bigger the size of protected areas, the more resilient an ecosystem is to swift and severe impacts of warming.

Kallick and his colleagues don't expect the boreal to become a main topic of discussion at the climate talks, though Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said that forest-related sequestration should be on the table as a bargaining chip even for industrial nations.

In the U.S., a program approved by Congress and launched through the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year is looking at ways that public and private forests will figure into carbon regulation. Natural carbon sequestration will be incorporated, one climate expert said, after nations first address greenhouse gas emissions from human industrial facilities and autos.

One myth, the report suggests, is that clearcutting northern forests enhances carbon dioxide absorption through a proliferation of new seedling growth, but the research indicates that older trees actually take in and hold more carbon.

The Boreal Forest Initiative, which receives funding from the U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts, is considered timely not only within the context of finding cost-effective strategies for reducing human-made carbon, for it has implications for the next generation of forestry.

The global economic downturn has left behind a hobbled home construction industry and a glut of lumber, dramatically slowing demand in the U.S. for cheaper wood products coming across the border from Canada.

Moreover, circulation challenges besetting print media and pressure placed by conservation groups on companies producing mail order catalogs to switch to recycled paper, have also slowed the tree felling for pulp.

If, and when, an economic turnaround begins, conservationists say it is foolhardy to return to the timber practices of old that have caused massive habitat loss for wildlife, a prominent casualty being woodland caribou in lower Canada. The boreal carbon assessment, the report says, lends credence to that argument.

"The world's largest intact forest is, at most, a two-day drive away for most North Americans. Think about it: We live near the northern forest equivalent of the Amazon rainforest and yet we rarely give it a second thought," Kallick says, adding that the boreal isn't only an oxygen engine and a shelter for many species that pass through our lives. "It is a carbon warehouse," he notes, "that our kids, 50 years from now, will be lucky to have."

The report, 33 pages long, can be downloaded by clicking here.

Journalist Todd Wilkinson is writing a book about media mogul turned bison rancher and environmental humanitarian Ted Turner.