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Boreal forest in northern Ontario. (Kazuyoshi Ehara)
Boreal forest in northern Ontario. (Kazuyoshi Ehara)

Globe editorial

With newly protected boreal forest, the caribou are smiling Add to ...

Two old foes in Canada have made peace to conserve some of the world's most precious natural resources. The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, signed by most of the Canadian forestry industry and environmental activists, is nothing less than historic. It will result in a real and internationally significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and it serves as a model of non-governmental co-operation.

The agreement commits all participating companies (which cover some 70 per cent of Canada's boreal forest) to the most advanced sustainability practices in forestry: practices that "start with the science" and make the protection of species-at-risk paramount.

Canada's woodland caribou, and other less photogenic species that traverse the boreal forest, are among the greatest beneficiaries. Today, they are in grave danger; a majority of woodland caribou have a 40 per cent or less chance of surviving the century, according to Canopy's Nicole Rycroft. Many more protections are needed for the caribou to survive, but this move protects a vital part of their habitat.

Critically, the agreement will protect 29 million hectares of forestland - an area the size of Poland - from development for three years, controlling greenhouse gases immediately, even as the federal government waits for the U.S. to take the first step at the regulatory level. Kept intact, forests absorb carbon, but when cut down, they release greenhouse gases. Millions of protected hectares create a carbon reservoir that could capture billions of tonnes of carbon, or many times the 572 million tonnes of carbon emitted in Canada every year.

That's worth more than the sum total of dozens of programs and white papers put forward by governments and international organizations in recent years. It makes the deal one of worldwide significance, and helps refute Canada's emerging image as an environmental scofflaw. It shows, too, that an industry can, in the words of Avrim Lazar, CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, "turn environmental progress into a market advantage" internationally. Other high-emitting Canadian sectors should heed this approach.

Activists and forestry industrialists dealt with each other directly, with environmentalists suspending "Do Not Buy" campaigns against co-operating companies, while each company committed to protecting specific numbers of hectares. Governments, prone to acting slowly, were on the sidelines.

They cannot stay there, though. By itself, this deal does not save the caribou or stop climate change. In three years, without government action or further industry commitments, 29 million hectares of trees will again be vulnerable. But the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement marks the beginning of a new era in environmental protection, one in which Canada could emerge not as a laggard, but as a leader.

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