When we talk about saving forests to fight climate change, it’s usually tropical forests that get most of the attention. But advocates for the world’s boreal forests remind us that we shouldn’t forget the vast, semi-frozen forests of the northern latitudes and all the carbon they store.
These sub-Arctic, largely coniferous forests (also called “taiga,” the Russian word for swampy, moist forest) form a green halo around the northern hemisphere from Russia to Canada, where they make up a quarter of the world’s remaining intact forests, but are subject to threats from clearing, mining and energy development.
May will mark one year since the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) was announced to protect 178 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest stretching from British Columbia to Newfoundland – an area about twice the size of Montana.
Under this historic agreement – one of the biggest conservation deals in history in terms of area – 21 of Canada’s largest forest products companies joined with nine major conservation organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, to commit to strict environmental standards of forest management in areas under the agreement.
The deal brought industry and environmental organizations together to set out a framework for an agreement, but now the hard work of getting to the details of action – through consultations with federal, provincial and aboriginal governments – is beginning. The Nature Conservancy is working to provide science leadership for implementation of the agreement.
“The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement includes a series of important strategies that address forest sustainability and climate change,” said Ronnie Drever, Ph.D., forest ecologist for the Conservancy’s Canada program. “The agreement is about sustainable and climate-friendly forest practices, emissions reductions and planning for protected areas important for conservation of forest carbon as well as woodland caribou and other at-risk species.”
While the majority of carbon in tropical forests is stored in vegetation above ground, in the boreal forests, large below-ground carbon deposits build up in deep peat lands and permafrost soils. Some studies have indicated that boreal forests may store more carbon per area than tropical forests. For example, one recent report suggests that Canada’s Boreal Forest stores 147 billion tons of carbon in peat lands — equivalent to about 25 years of man-made global carbon emissions.
Work to conserve tropical forests in countries like Brazil and Indonesia remains critically important to slowing climate change, because of the speed of deforestation and the carbon released from these rapidly developing places (as well as disruption to forest dwelling peoples and diverse wildlife). But, efforts to conserve and protect boreal forests, holding more carbon (about 11 percent) than any habitat type other than the world’s oceans, are another critical piece of the climate change solution.
More than three billion songbirds migrate annually to Canada’s boreal forest and scientists say these forests can provide refuge for birds and other species that are likely to shift their ranges northward as temperatures warm.
Meanwhile, the Conservancy’s Alaska and Canada programs are working together through the Northern Climate Change Program to provide a cross-border link and better coordination of on-going climate and conservation work. With Northern forests and coastal areas already experiencing melting of sea ice and permafrost, as well as increased threats to forest health from pests and fire, the Conservancy’s goal is to work with communities, First Nations and aboriginal people to plan conservation that can keep nature healthy as the environment continues to change.
“The people of the North await our action. The time for effective policy and strategic action is now,” says Evie Witten, the Conservancy’s director for the Northern Climate Change Program.
Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy
Image: © Charles R. Drever, TNC (Areas of Canada’s boreal forest included in the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement).
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