Climate change and the battle for Canada’s forests

Centuries-old forests dotting the landscape in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, have become a battleground for two schools of thought about curbing climate change: one that wants to use their biomass for green power, and another anxious to protect carbon-absorbing trees.

Scientists and campaigners are putting the provincial government under increasing pressure to preserve older woodland in particular, which is often rich in biodiversity and a major store of carbon.

But escalating climate concerns have also encouraged the growth of British Columbia’s biomass industry, which produces wood pellets that are treated as a “carbon neutral” fuel.

Major producers include power company Drax, which has sought to reinvent itself as a generator of clean energy. The UK-listed company acquired Canadian wood pellet producer Pinnacle last year, and plans to double the production and sales of pellets by 2030.

Although biomass fuels have become a significant source of energy in the EU and Asia, some scientists are increasingly sceptical about the environmental credentials of burning wood for energy.

In British Columbia, some wood from old trees ends up in pellets. While this remains legal, campaigners fear the practice is not sustainable, and say that it undermines the argument of biomass advocates that pellets are a responsible alternative to fossil fuels.

Some producers fear the provincial government will introduce stricter harvesting quotas to reduce the amount of old woodland that can be logged.

A protest camp set up on Vancouver Island to campaign against logging of old trees © Cole Burston/AFP/Getty

British Columbia “should not be issuing permits to log [old] forests,” said Michelle Connolly, director of advocacy group Conservation North. “They have the power and they should know better,” she added.

The scale of the harvesting of old trees was “insanity”, said Rachel Holt, a member of the independent Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel convened by the provincial government last year. “These are incredibly rare, extremely high-value forests . . . You cannot log and harvest 200-year-old trees sustainably,” she said.

According to official figures, about a quarter of all the forest that is harvested each year in British Columbia is classified as “old growth” — which typically refers to trees that are more than 140 or 250 years old, depending on location.

The province’s pellet industry has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, while related activities such as paper production have shrunk. The market has attracted investment from companies looking to convert coal-fired plants to biomass plants. Pellet mills typically source wood from the areas surrounding them — largely the offcuts and residues from trees harvested for other purposes, producers said.

All seven of Pinnacle’s British Columbia mills are surrounded by woodland that includes “primary” forest — native and often old trees that have not been disturbed by human activities — according to an analysis of government data by Conservation North.

A recent Drax-commissioned report found that supply to two Pinnacle mills might shrink as a result of provincial government’s efforts to protect old growth forests.

Drax said its Canadian pellets were “made from waste fibre which would have been burnt at the roadside, landfilled or left to rot. Eighty per cent of this waste fibre comes from sawmill residues and 20 per cent comes from harvesting residues.”

Map showing forestry areas around Houston, BC
The area surrounding a Pinnacle mill in British Columbia, the Houston facility (roughly central). Green is primary forest, red is degraded forest or land converted to another use, such as a road, white is no data. Area shown has a radius of about 50km © Conservation North

Under pressure to rethink how old forests should be managed, the provincial government commissioned an independent review in 2019. The report, published in 2020, concluded that the economy was “heavily dependent on trees harvested from primary forests of old trees” and outlined recommendations such as deferring development in sensitive areas.

Garry Merkel, a forester, member of the region’s indigenous Tahltan nation and lead author of the report, said old forests were “critical” for the health of ecosystems and were “not renewable”, adding: “We have to think of this more like mining.”

British Columbia’s forests ministry said it was “committed to improving the way we care for our forests” and would implement the report’s recommendations.

The region’s forest industries are keenly monitoring whether tougher restrictions will follow.

The 2020 Drax-commissioned report on supply to Pinnacle’s mills said government measures to protect biodiversity and old growth had “resulted in partial withdrawals of land from timber harvest availability . . . in some areas harvesting is prohibited whereas in others it may proceed on a modified basis.”

Further restrictions might be “in the offing”, the report said.

Canfor, a lumber company and Pinnacle supplier, implied in documents that it harvested old growth, noting a transition “from harvesting mostly old growth to harvesting managed stands [of trees]” occurred after the first two decades of logging in a particular area.

Canfor said the company was “committed to practising world-class sustainable harvesting and forest management practices” and followed “a comprehensive permitting system from the BC government”.

Drax has converted four of the six units at its power station in Yorkshire, England from coal to woody biomass. However, it was dropped from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index in October as a result of a high “carbon intensity” score. Meanwhile, a Citi analyst note from December said “we do not fundamentally see biomass as a sustainable source of energy”, reflecting the concerns about treating wood pellets as environmentally friendly.

British Columbia’s Council of Forest Industries said the province had “world-leading sustainable harvesting and active forest management practices”. It said lumber companies minimised waste by selling offcuts — whether from old growth trees or younger woodland — to groups including paper and pellet mills.

But Merkel, the forester, said even this approach depleted ecosystems, adding that “there is no such thing in nature as waste”.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.

Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Find out more about our science-based targets here

Source link – for Content removal contact [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *