The other side of the climate story
Our concerns about climate change have focused on limiting rising emissions from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, which push carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We don’t focus as much on land-use change, and for a country like Canada, with a vast land base, it is time to take seriously the opportunity to look at forest carbon reserves in Canada and beyond.
This theme will be the focus of my Public Salon presentation on June 5 in Vancouver.
Earlier this month, a key milestone was eclipsed: For the first time in more than 800,000 years, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million, compared to pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. The march of rising emissions is relentless, and while the global recession has take the edge off the rate of growth, emissions in Canada and many other parts of the world continue to expand.
Much of the optimism about the large-scale potential for clean energy solutions has waned and now the energy community speaks of a portfolio of clean solutions, combined with lower carbon transition fuels like natural gas.
The climate policy debate has tended to focus on emissions, but the other side of the climate story is that over the last two centuries, humans have been responsible for dramatic levels of deforestation and land-use change on every continent.
Around 18 per cent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions are from land-use change and deforestation results in around eight gigatonnes of emissions of carbon dioxide per year, more than 10 times the total emissions of Canada.
We have all seen graphic images of the impacts of slash-and-burn agriculture and clearcutting hacking away at some of the world’s largest forest reserves from the Amazon to the Congo Basin. The Congo Basin alone stores around 23 gigatonnes of carbon in living, vibrant and highly biodiverse rainforests.
In B.C., in some years the loss of carbon from forests affected by pine beetle have exceeded the total emissions from all other sources in the province.
The global debate about climate change and a replacement to the Kyoto Protocol has stalled, but jurisdictions such as California and Quebec have moved ahead to establish the second-largest carbon market in the world and around 10 per cent of the world’s emissions are covered by some form of carbon pricing.
The single largest opportunity to counteract the increases in emissions is to invest in projects that focus on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Projects in countries like Indonesia, Brazil and the Congo have already demonstrated that forest areas can be protected from harvest activities, which prevents the carbon they store from moving into the atmosphere.
A project my company helped to create in the Democratic Republic of Congo will lock up around 175 million tonnes over the next 25 years from 300,000 hectares of land that was slated for harvest.
The revenue model provides employment for more than 80 local people, who work as wardens and educators in the communities neighbouring the forests. The contract at the heart of this conservation economy has to involve benefits sharing through employment and infrastructure investment with local people if it is to succeed.
Within Canada’s vast land base, we have seen a number of projects that follow this same conservation economy model.
The Great Bear Rainforest agreements required investment for First Nations communities to be willing to forgo forest harvest opportunities and will store around 30 million tonnes of additional carbon dioxide over the life of the project.
Each of the large LNG plants being proposed for the B.C. coast will produce three million to four million tonnes of carbon dioxide; while natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel than coal, the production process is energy intensive.
The only way to deliver on the premier’s promise of clean natural gas on a scale that will match the levels of production envisaged is to invest in reversing the effects of land-use change in B.C., Canada and beyond.
James Tansey is co-founder and CEO of carbon-offset company Offsetters, associate professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia and executive director of ISIS, a research centre at UBC dedicated to social innovation and sustainability.