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(Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler)
(Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler)

Pine beetles transform B.C. forests into greenhouse enemy Add to ...

In a single season, an army of pine beetles has transformed our allies in the battle against climate change into the enemy.

Now the province is in a race against nature, as one billion beetle-killed trees across the province slowly seep the greenhouse gases they had so generously stored up in their decades of growth.

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Such a turnaround seemed unimaginable back in February, 2008, when Premier Gordon Campbell first seized on the value of B.C.'s forests in his campaign against global warming. Trees lock away carbon dioxide, and the province has a lot of them - 60 million hectares of forests. They seemed to offer a natural, elegant means of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

"We have few natural allies in our fight against climate change that are more important than our forests," the Campbell government's Throne Speech read. The centrepiece of that speech was the Premier's climate action plan, which promises to reduce one-third of the province's GHG emissions by 2020.

Two months later, federal researchers published findings that exposed a fatal flaw in that great green design. The pine beetle epidemic has killed so many trees that the province's forests are now net emitters of greenhouse gases. Using computer modelling, they've determined the scales tipped in 2003, when the forests began to release more emissions than they absorbed.

By last year, the devastation wrought by the tiny, hungry beetles in British Columbia contributed more GHG emissions than all of the province's human activity put together - and nearly double the output of Alberta's much-maligned oil sands.

Twenty years ago, the war in the woods forced the provincial government to rethink how it makes forest policy. Aside from the raw economics of creating timber and newsprint, the province began to calculate environmental values. Today, it must add a third part to that equation: the carbon footprint.

SLOW DECAY OR FAST BURN?

Although the pine beetle epidemic has peaked, it will likely take a decade before the scales will tip back again. When a tree succumbs to a bug infestation, it begins to release greenhouse gases as it decomposes - a process that can take half a century. That's just half the problem. Those forests are no longer helping absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In 2009, the resulting footprint of the beetle-killed wood in B.C. was 74 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. The oil sands next door generated 38 megatonnes.

"Our forests are a huge part of the story," climate-change expert Andrew Weaver said this week. But it's a part of the story that is often overlooked because the province does not count the overall contributions of its forests in its climate action targets.

Dr. Weaver's internationally recognized climate research has helped the province shape its policies on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. But he is wary of B.C.'s current enthusiasm for bioenergy as a solution to the challenge presented by the pine beetle.

"It's not kosher to say burning pine forests is part of the solution," he said. "You can say it's part of a forest renewal issue and it may be a transient plan as we transform the forests in some way, but you have to be really careful how you do it."

Burning wood for energy isn't new, but doing it efficiently is something else. Jonathan Rhone, CEO of Nexterra, is developing small-scale systems that can transform wood waste into "syngas," a relatively clean alternative to fossil fuels. His company has installed power plants in industrial, institutional and residential settings, but it's still a product in its infancy.

Despite the huge opportunities, he said B.C. is far from making broad commercial use of its pine beetle-killed wood. "We have a huge resource of biomass," Mr. Rhone said. "But there are still challenges in creating the right kind of business environment."

GETTING THE MIX RIGHT

Brian McCloy is an industry consultant who has carved out a niche as a guru of waste-wood economics. The rush to harvest dead and dying wood has proved a lifeline to the hard-hit forest industry in the Interior, but Mr. McCloy is looking ahead to when that party is over. And it's not too far off, he warns.

He proposes those dead lodgepole pine forests be replanted with a faster-growing alternative. "If we started today, we log and process mountain pine beetle [deadwood]for 20 years, then we segue into hybrid poplar." It's a plan that could keep some forestry-dependent communities going, "but we need to get on with it."

But forestry analyst Ben Parfitt argues the province needs to see its forests as a whole, not just the dead trees.

Mr. Parfitt will release a new report on Monday that argues there are ways to bring B.C.'s forests onside again in the battle against global warming, but current policies need to change.

"All is not lost, but we can't continue down the path of just clear-cutting all these forests," he said. "With this indiscriminate approach to logging, we have seen shocking increases in the amount of usable wood being left behind. From a greenhouse-gas perspective, it's just crazy."

In his report, Managing BC's Forests for a Cooler Planet, Mr. Parfitt outlines a 10-step plan that would change the way forestry decisions are made. A majority of dead forests should be left to regenerate naturally - they are already experiencing healthy new growth. He also advocates preserving more healthy, old-growth forests on the coast as carbon sinks. Over a cup of coffee, Mr. Parfitt leans over and raps the café's wood panels with his knuckles. This solid wood, he points out, still holds carbon. The newspaper on the table does not. In his hierarchy, solid wood products come before biofuel.

Without this kind of thinking, he says, "we don't have a snowball's chance in hell of meeting our targets."

The report, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has won the approval of both forest unions and environmentalists - a remarkable feat in itself.

Scott Lunny, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers Union, which represents many of the province's forest workers, said his union backed the report because no one can ignore the implications of B.C.'s huge, dead forests.

"If you want to be a player in the future, you have to adapt to the environment that's out there," he said. "We have to have a healthy working forest and live up to our responsibilities with respect to carbon emissions." Even if that means accepting that more forests have to be preserved. "It's pretty hard to defend the status quo," he said.

THE FUTURE

Werner Kurz is the senior research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service behind the carbon model that measures the impact of beetle kills on the atmosphere. His work projects doomsday scenarios - a feedback cycle where global warming leads to more bug infestations, more wildfires, and warmer soil which releases still more carbon.

The models are meant to help make better policy choices: Which trees should be left standing, which ones should be cut into two-by-fours or fed into boilers?

According to Dr. Kurz's research, bioenergy is not an immediate fix. In the short term, the impact on carbon-dioxide levels is worse than if fossil fuels - even coal - were used to generate the energy. That's because wood releases more carbon to generate the same amount of energy. If the wood wasn't burned, it would only gradually release carbon into the atmosphere.

However, over the long term, the balance swings sharply in the other direction. In later decades, emissions from the forest drop, since wood that otherwise would have been decaying has been removed and burned in bioenergy plants. And by then new growth in harvested stands are well into their cycle of carbon uptake.

Dr. Kurz says the point at which short-term climate pain turns to long-term gain can be as few as 20 years for a forest with a high percentage of deadwood, like many of B.C.'s pine-beetle infested stands.

So many factors, now, to consider when looking at the value of a tree.

Dr. Kurz's team have a solution for that, too. By this spring, it hopes to release a new tool to help analyze the greenhouse-gas implications of using wood as an energy source.

"There's no magic here," he said, "it's just a question of running the analysis."

 

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