Millions of acres of boreal forest — one of the largest storehouses of carbon on Earth — will be protected under a groundbreaking truce in Canada that ends years of fighting over logging rights between forest companies and environmental and Native American groups.
This week, the 21 member companies of the (FPAC) and nine green groups inked a outlining the immediate suspension of new logging and road building on almost 72 million acres of forest and sustainable harvesting practices on tens of millions more.
"This is a global event in its size," said Avram Lazar, president and CEO of FPAC, which manages two-thirds of Canada's forest lands. "Forest practices are going to be improved over an area the size of Texas," he told reporters.
Steven Kallick, director of the boreal conservation campaign for the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group, one of the groups leading the coalition, called it "the greatest accomplishment in the history of forest conservation" — not least because of the climate benefits it would provide.
The NGO signatories all seem to agree that the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, as it's called, would help in the worldwide fight against warming. Deforestation accounts for around 20 percent of human-caused emissions, according to UN figures.
Forests serve as crucial carbon sinks, soaking up climate-changing carbon dioxide when they grow, and spewing it back into the atmosphere when they are burnt down or decay. This is particularly true of the super carbon-absorbing boreal lands, which extend some 6.4 million square millions across the Northern Hemisphere.
With their cold and deep permafrost soils and peatlands, boreal forests have long been thought to lock in more carbon gas than tropical rainforests. Recent studies support this belief.
More Carbon Than Tropical Forests
According to a 2009 by Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, carbon-dense boreal lands store nearly twice as much CO2 as typical tropical forests per hectare. Currently, 703 gigatons of carbon are locked up in these woodlands, the study says, representing 22 percent of all the carbon stored on the planet's surface. The world's tropical forests, meanwhile, contain 375 gigatons.
"[The boreal forest] rivals the Amazon in size and ecological importance," Kallick said. It is "absolutely critical to protecting biological diversity worldwide."
Only about 10 percent of the world's boreal forests is under protection, however, according to recent in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Russia — home to some 60 percent of the boreal forest — is considered the world's worst offender in this regard.
Canada's share of the boreal is about 30 percent and covers around 760 million acres. The 79-million-acre stretch now under protection reaches from the province of British Columbia up to Newfoundland.
According to Richard Brooks, a forests campaign manager for Greenpeace and spokesperson for the NGO signatories, that soon-to-be-off-limits area has about 20 billion tons of greenhouse gases amassed in its carbon-eating soils and trees. That's roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 18 billion cars, Brooks said, or about 18 times the number of vehicles on the world's roads today.
'Last Chance' to Protect Boreal from Warming
Brooks said the deal, over two years in the making, represents the "last chance to permanently protect large areas of forests that will be durable in the face of climate change."
Beyond that, said Lazar, the deal will green up logging operations on the nearly 180 million acres of public forests licensed to FPAC members and "reassure global buyers of our products' sustainability."
FPAC pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "along the full life cycle from forest to end-of-product life."