There is increasing interest in meeting some portion of Canadas Kyoto commitment through afforestation, or creating new forests. In particular, some are pressing for government programs to support the establishment of plantations of fast-growing species, such as hybrid poplar. The rationale is that fast-growing species show more potential in sequestering carbon during the first Kyoto commitment period, from 2008-2012. The Forest Sector Table (part of the massive federal consultation from 1998-2000 through what were called the Issues Tables) put forward such a recommendation, but it was not a consensus recommendation. Several Table members expressed strong skepticism about the advisability of such a scheme, citing the concerns described below.
The sequestration potential figures cited by plantation proponents are often highly inflated
(You do not get the carbon storage benefit claimed!)
- Growth rates cited are generally upper-end figures from plantations established on the very best sites. However, the lands likely to be converted to plantations will usually be lesser sites that are marginal for agriculture.
- Projections do not factor in the carbon that is lost through site clearing and preparation. Many landowners will not establish tree farms on land currently in agricultural production but on land that has been abandoned for years or even decades. This land often already has a considerable volume of naturally regenerating trees and shrubs growing on it, so that clearing it will result in a reduction of on-site carbon, not an increase.
- Projections do not factor in the emissions that are generated through site tending and fertilization (using fossil fuel inputs).
The impermanence of plantations makes them a significant liability
(Carbon storage in plantations is here today, gone tomorrow!)
- Plantation proponents have for the most part focused only on the risk of fire or storm damage prior to stand maturity, and suggest various insurance schemes for risk management. However, all fast-growing plantations are eventually logged, so the chance of a plantation resulting in a significant loss of carbon at some future time is one hundred percent. No risk management scheme can change this. (Some proponents have argued that the risk can be managed by bringing new plantations into the system when the older ones are nearing maturity. This is analogous to what in investment circles is known as a Ponzi scheme, and constitutes serious fraud.)
- No trees live forever, and most forests eventually suffer some disturbance that results in significant carbon emissions, but fast-growing plantations are a particular liability. They mature quickly, so that the liability upon harvest occurs sooner. And they are almost always clearcut upon maturity; while natural forests may be selectively logged or managed for biodiversity conservation, thereby retain higher volumes of on-site carbon over time. Mature natural forests will also frequently store higher volumes of carbon than intensively managed forests.
- Companies (such as energy utilities) interested in contracting with landowners have made it very plain that they wish to assume no liability for what happens to the on-site carbon upon maturity. Landowners have not widely embraced the concept of placing a conservation easement on their property requiring them and their successors to maintain the land in forest cover in perpetuity. The political consequences of imposing and enforcing such restrictions would be significant (if they are indeed enforceable at all), yet without the effective implementation of such a legal instrument the inevitable liability will be assumed by the public.
Fast-growing plantations raise significant environmental concerns
- Biodiversity loss, especially when naturally regenerating forests are converted to monoculture plantations of non-native and/or hybrid species.
- Environmental impacts of herbicide and pesticide use, which fast-growing plantations are especially dependent on.
- Strong environmental and social concerns about the introduction of genetically modified tree species, which some plantation projects propose to do.
- Long-term nutrient loss and soil depletion through intensive forest management.
- Impacts on the local water table due to thirsty growing stock.
Promoting fast-growing plantations is a dangerously short-sighted climate change mitigation option for the Government of Canada. The benefits (over natural forest restoration) apply only in the early Kyoto commitment periods, and at the cost of increased future liability, with significant negative environmental impacts.
The Forest Sector Table Options Report acknowledges the perspective that:
there is little point in highlighting fast-growing plantations as a distinct option, because while there is a short term advantage to using fast-growing species, there is no demonstrated long-term advantage to generating afforestation credits with fast-growing species as opposed to traditional native species (p.137, emphasis added).
The cost of plantation schemes should not be viewed as a cost per tonne of CO2 removals, but rather as the interest cost of borrowing credits against future liability. Viewed in this way, a federally funded plantation program amounts to a financial sinkhole rather than a legitimate climate change mitigation option.
The Government of Canada should be extremely wary of proposals that seek to use federal funds to generate credit that would be a privately traded commodity, while the future debits that directly result from these activities remain a public liability. This may be appealing to potential buyers, sellers and brokers of forest carbon offsets, but it is clearly not in the best interests of the people of Canada, the environment or the climate.
Prepared by Martin von Mirbach for the Sierra Club of Canada
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