UnNeutral Opinion | Boreal Forest: From carbon source to sink

Boreal Forest: From carbon sink to source

If you asked someone 10 years ago how they could help the environment, they’d have said to recycle.

I can’t tell you how many poems, drawings and art competitions we had at school about the importance of separating plastic, garden and general waste. It was a lot. Today however, planting trees seems to be THE thing that we’re all grasping onto to get us out of the current climate crisis. 

And there’s a case to be made. (Check out the linked article from Ubuntu Studio on the affect fires in the subarctic boreal forest are having.)

Whilst it seems clear that planting millions or even trillions of trees is not going to offset our engrained societal reliance on fossil fuels (spoiler: we’re going to have to both restore global biomass AND cut fossil fuels 100% amongst a myriad of other things — sorry BP), the science shows that our fauna and flora are integral to humanities fight for survival on this planet.

But there’s bad news. Take the subarctic “boreal” forest in Russia and North America for instance: 15 million square km are playing a key part in the rise of carbon emissions.

The trees (and the ecosystems they support) are one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks, however according to the Financial Times, they have lost more tree cover to fire than any other region on earth in the past decade—and that could turn them into a carbon source instead.

If fire and rising temperatures make this vast area a net carbon emitter (as has already happened in large parts of the Amazon) keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels could be put permanently out of reach. It doesn’t help that cooperation between Russian and western scientists on the health of boreal forests has ground to a halt. Yet another reason to win — and end — the war.

In Europe, policy too is playing a part. It may come as a surprise that biomass from burning trees, plants and waste, is the main source of renewable, “carbon neutral” energy in the EU, argued on the basis that the emissions from burning trees are offset by the carbon absorbed by the ones that take their place. 

This feels a little — scrap that, very — backwards. Especially given experts have pointed to the impact of cutting down healthy trees that should keep carbon locked up in forests. The good news is the European parliament has now voted to end public subsidies for “primary wood biomass” — i.e. healthy standing trees. 

A positive step locally. But is it one that will be taken up by other countries with even larger forests and woodlands that rival Europe? There are, of course, some good news stories out there. However right now the resounding answer is simply, no.