Can we create national forest policies that help deal with climate change, both in mitigating its effects, and adapting to its effects? Yes.
This post is focused on Canada, but can largely be translated to other countries. As always, this is not about gradual change – but making abrupt turns that preserve a future for our children, on the basis that the old rules are not working.
The FAO has called for policy and legislative changes regarding forestry, although perhaps not as steep change as is advocated for here. Last year they released an updated version of Climate change for forest policy-makers, version 2.0. Originally released in 2011, this version has substantial changes. It recommends that :
To make progress toward achieving their climate change mitigation and adaptation goals, countries may need to review and revise, on the basis of good governance principles, their forest-related policies and the way these policies are implemented. Given that adaptation and mitigation actions will require a legal basis for related rights and obligations, forest laws and related regulations are likely to need to be reviewed and adjusted to ensure their consistency with the forest policies.
But first, let’s discuss some basics. A few basic legal / political premises:
- Most forests in Canada is “crown land” – technically (theoretically) owned by the government of Canada, but held for the people
- In Canada, under the Constitution, the provinces have jurisdiction over forests (Constitution Act, 1867, s. 92(5))
- The federal government has traditionally conducted forest research through the Canadian Forest Service
- Most forests in Canada are also subject to Indigenous rights and title, whether through treaty or the lack of a treaty (inherent rights)
Some scientific premises:
- Trees fix, or sequester, carbon. That means, most simply, that they take carbon from the air and make wood, bark and leaves out of it
- Forests regulate hydrological cycles, store water and release it slowly, and thereby prevent and mitigate both droughts and floods
- Many trees also provide food for people, animals and insects. Fruit and nuts being the most obvious, but seeds and pollen also feed many animals and more insects.
And a few premises about our current state of affairs
- insects are in collapse
- animals/wildlife are in collapse
- our climate is in collapse
- those three are interconnected in an interdependent global ecosystem
- we humans rely on the climate and global ecosystem for life, every day
What is the solution in relation to forests? Since growing trees fix carbon, an easy place to start is massive tree planting programs. It would be even better if that included fruit, nut, and seed bearing trees, and ensures forests are designed for hydrological stability and fire resistance.
This would have include the end of deforestation and forest degradation, and an end to the cutting of old-growth and high productivity rainforests – including on Canada’s west coast. Deforestation and forest degradation currently accounts for 30% of carbon emissions. A tall order, but every step towards it counts.
These things are no-brainers, it’s an easy way to stop liquidating carbon and start pulling it out of the atmosphere. The Jane Goodall Institute has done a lot of work on creating awareness regarding the power within forests to deal with climate change.
A simple step is to mandate that all forestry companies that manage public lands through tenures, contracts or other means ensure their lands are fully stocked, ie – covered in growing trees. And a national tree-planting program to fill in every available space, including those which are not suitable for timber. Some scrubland plants are actually excellent carbon-sequesters, and can be planted on lands which are not managed for timber.
The next is to assign some smart foresters and scientists to sort out the details on what is the best mix of species to plant in each area to maximise carbon sequestration, ecosystem benefits, hydrological balance, and timber production.
Is there legal authority to do this? Yes. Provinces and the feds control most forest land in Canada, to a degree. First Nations / Indigenous Peoples also exert more and more control over the land. The best practice for dealing with land use decisions, and to deal with climate change, is to implement UNDRIP, particularly the veto. This is the same in all post-colonial countries.
Are there contracts in place with forestry companies which could prevent fast action or rapid changes to the forestry sector? Yes, there are. How can they be dealt with? Buy outs, agreements, and where that doesn’t work – expropriate those rights or deal with them by legislation.
Could we be sued under NAFTA and other trade agreements for expropriating rights or unilaterally revising contracts of foreign-owned corporations or individuals? Possibly. But there are ways to deal with that too, which will be the subject of yet another post.
In summary – forests are a powerful tool to deal with climate change. Considering the lack of meaningful change so far in relation to forestry powerful legal tools may have to be used to gain the climate benefits which are possible. Change may be difficult, but is not impossible, and the legal obstacles are surmountable. Will we find the will?