CANADIANS THINK of forests as “the lungs of the earth” or “natural air purifiers.” They understand that forests provide life-giving oxygen. They may not be familiar with the corollary benefit of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, but they appreciate that having large areas of healthy forests helps balance the web of life and maintain a stable climate. How is it then that governments, industry and even some academic think tanks believe that climate change will be helped in the short term by cutting down forests, turning them into wood chips, shipping them hundreds of kilometres, and burning them to make electricity?

The answer is twofold. First, as is all too often the case, economic interests trump intelligent thinking. It is the simple reason why societies are unsustainable. Second, there is a strange loophole in the Kyoto Protocol rules that allows a tree to be burned without having to account for the carbon released when a tree is used as fuel.

The Kyoto Protocol rule in question was introduced because it was assumed that any loss of forest biomass caused by energy use would be accounted for by the forest sector, not the energy sector. However, since Canada did not include forest management in its calculations for the Kyoto Protocol, carbon dioxide emissions resulting when forests are harvested are not considered. So despite the fact that trees are made of carbon, and carbon goes straight into the air as carbon dioxide when trees are burned, they are a carbon-neutral fuel under Kyoto rules.

There may be no loss of biomass if forests are sustainably harvested, and we are considering a 100-year carbon cycle. But from a climate-urgency perspective it is wrong headed. When trees are cut down and burned, the carbon enters the environment in minutes. New trees need 50 to 100 years to reabsorb this carbon. It does not require a degree in atmospheric chemistry to realize that at least in the short term, this practice will cause – not stop – global warming.

What this loophole could allow is illustrated in Ontario. Canada’s most populous province has a large investment in coal-fired power plants that will not be permitted to use coal after 2014. So there are proposals afoot to cut trees once slated for now defunct pulp mills and chuck them into the coal plants. The thinking is that it would help address unemployment in forest towns devastated by the collapse of the Canadian forest industry. But there is a bigger question: Is this practice good for the climate or even sustainable?

It depends.

Canadians are on the cusp of making a choice between two future pathways. We can follow the old economic model of large, centralized electricity plants combined with an antiquated forest tenure system, or we can choose smaller, community-based projects that are flexible efficient, and responsive to social and economic circumstances.

Two particularly striking examples illustrate the lunacy of the old economic pathway. BC’s warmer climate has allowed the mountain pine beetle to overwinter and devastate pine forests. A province where the forest industry has historically been the largest contributor to the GDP may lose more than 90 per cent of its pine trees. Even though it may sound far-fetched, there are proposals to chop up BC’s dying forests into wood chips, mix them with water, and send this slurry through pipelines to urban centres or to Alberta’s oil sands. Once arrived, they will be burned to produce heat or electricity. With slurry pipelines criss-crossing the country, it wouldn’t take long to use up all of the bug-infested trees. Then what would happen? The only way to continue feeding the pipeline infrastructure, and the end users it supplies, would be to start cutting healthy trees.

When pushing to eliminate the use of coal for electricity generation in Ontario, nobody imagined that the province’s forests would become the alternative fuel. The practice of feeding trees into a 4000-megawatt coal plant such as Nanticoke is highly questionable from an ecological standpoint. It would turn North America’s largest coal-burning facility into the world’s largest wood-burning stove with an appetite requiring in excess of 100,000 hectares of forest to be harvested annually.

If our forests were of no other economic or ecological value, these schemes may have some merit. But Canada’s forests are worth far more as building material or left standing as air and water purifiers, and wildlife habitat. They can also be harvested sustainably, and used efficiently to supply local communities with heat and electricity.

Forest companies that harvest and burn local wood waste to produce heat or electricity should be encouraged. Forest industry facilities across Canada are burning this material in combined-heat-and-power facilities to generate the community’s electricity, and provide heat for local manufacturing and tree nurseries.

Burning true wood waste locally in small-scale facilities to produce local heat and power makes sense, particularly if the forests are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. But converting massive, centralized facilities into wood burners that require the logging of standing forests is misguided even if Kyoto rules allow it. 

These proposals also fly in the face of added-value. The lowest-value use of wood is burning it; humans mastered that technology hundreds of thousands of years ago. Provincial governments, energy developers and utilities would be well served to study sustainable forest practices, the high value of Canada’s forest products and the ecological benefits of forests before deciding to burn them in the name of climate change – Kyoto, Copenhagen or not. P

resident of the Ivey Foundation and co-author of the best-selling book Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Bruce Lourie has 25 years of policy expertise in energy, forest conservation and toxic pollution.

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