In February, I asked Mosaic Forest Management three questions about the carbon impact of their planned logging on Cortes. I posted my initial letter here ( link
). This article now is a summary of their answers along with my comments on each. My Q1 - - EMISSIONS: How much CO2 will be emitted by the Mosaic harvest on Cortes?
MOSAIC: "We don’t share this information outside of our organization."
WHY I THINK IT MATTERS
The wood harvested in BC is one of the largest sources of climate-destabilizing CO2 in our province. It emits more CO2 than from all the cars, trucks, and buildings in BC. For those interested in the numbers, the BC government greenhouse gas inventory reports that harvested wood emits around 9 tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) a year per British Columbian.
Since Mosaic is not sharing their numbers, I'll use my own best guestimate of 1 tCO2 for every 1 cubic meter of wood harvested to provide some sense of scale. At this level, emissions would total 8,000 tCO2 from each year of Mosaic's proposed harvest on Cortes. This is roughly 8 tCO2 per Cortesian from each year's logging, making it the largest source of CO2 that I'm aware of on our island.
At this point in the climate crisis, I think that when companies propose large projects, they should be transparent with the public about how much climate pollution would result from it. The public needs to know so we can all make informed decisions and comments. My Q2 - - REMOVALS: How is Mosaic planning to mitigate the CO2 from the wood they harvest on Cortes?
MOSAIC: "The next generation of forests will remove carbon and the carbon is stored into long term wood products versus carbon intense alternatives."
WHY IT MATTERS
There is no debate about whether logging releases lots of CO2. It does, and as discussed above, the government reports how much it is each year.
What Mosaic claims in their answer (as nearly all the logging industry also claims) is that the huge amount of CO2 emitted by their harvested wood isn't a problem because it will all get removed from the air as the forest grows back. This is the concept used by the industry to label their harvested wood products as "carbon neutral".
And, indeed, the government greenhouse gas inventory shows that decades ago
this did happen in BC. BC's forest used to grow new wood as fast as logging was removing it. Back then, the net growth in the forest each year pulled as much CO2 out of the air as the harvested wood emitted into it.
But sadly, BC's forest hasn't done that for twenty years now.
Every year since 2002, the wood harvested from BC's forest has emitted more CO2 than the forest has taken back in. Over these two decades we have been logging faster than BC's forest has been growing back. Forest volume has been declined steadily, and the excess CO2 caused by harvesting wood faster than the forest can add it back has been piling up in the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis - - just like the CO2 from burning fossil fuels.
The primary driver of this change has been the rapidly shifting climate here. This is increasing droughts, heat waves, wildfires, insect outbreaks and storm damage. The forest is struggling as death and decay are overwhelming new growth. But the logging industry hasn't adjusted how much they are cutting to match what the forest can replace. They've kept their logging levels high.
About a decade ago, the steadily collapsing "carbon sink" in BC's forest disappeared completely and the forest flipped to become a net emitter of CO2 instead.
Here are some of the sobering numbers from the BC greenhouse gas inventory: over the last decade the forest emitted 450 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) while the wood harvested from it emitted another 470 MtCO2 and slash burning added 50 MtCO2 more. Combined, nearly a billion tonnes of BC forest carbon poured into the atmosphere. I've included a chart at the end of this article illustrating this, and another showing multi-decade trends in the government's forest carbon data.
This rising flood of forest carbon caused by logging and human-caused climate shifts averaged 17 tCO2 per British Columbian each year over the last decade. This far exceeds the CO2 emitted by all the fossil fuel burning in BC. It is a serious acceleration of climate emissions from BC, and it is happening at a scale that I think is dangerous to ignore.
For our own safety, I think it is critical that we acknowledge what the government data is saying: that BC's forest is emitting CO2 now. And we need to be honest that keeping logging levels so high in BC despite the collapse of the forest carbon sink is resulting in far more CO2 getting added into the climate system than if we reduced logging to a more sustainable level. (Further reading: those interested in reading more on this subject can try my recent article covering BC forest carbon for the National Observer: llink ) MY Q3 - - SEEDLING FAILURE: What is Mosaic's plan to cover the rising risk of carbon-replacement failure when seedlings fail to replace the carbon of mature forest?
MOSAIC: "Please see information in last email related to NCASI." (Note: the NCASI paper and video that Mosaic referred me to don't address my question. But because they emphasize this paper as relevant to their logging, I will discuss the general issues in it at end of this article.)WHY IT MATTERS
Seedlings are more vulnerable to climate shifts than mature forests.
So, cutting down mature forests and hoping to replace what was lost with more-climate-vulnerable seedlings is increasingly likely to fail as the climate changes rapidly.
Here's what National Resources Canada says in the executive summary of their State of Canada's Forests 2020
report: "scientists predict that increasing temperatures and changes in weather patterns associated with climate change will drastically affect Canada’s forests in the near future. With the rate of projected climate change expected to be 10 to 100 times faster than the ability of forests adapt naturally."
The report goes on to say that "while well-established adult trees can often withstand increased stress, seedlings are highly vulnerable."
Mosaic plans to cut mature Cortes forests and replace them with some mix of seedlings they are choosing. The risk is rising that these seedlings will never be able to replace the carbon which the mature forest would have if it was not cut down.
BC's forest has drawn a short climate straw because climate shifts are happening much faster here than in more southern forests. Because of these rapid changes, it is unclear which seedlings to plant. There is an entire section in the State of Canada's Forests report mentioned above on how the government and industry are racing to try figure out which seedlings have the best shot at surviving. One huge problem is that nobody is sure what to even aim for because we don't know how much CO2 humans will end up releasing. And we also don't know how some of the especially damaging climate changes like micro-droughts, extreme heat events and extreme rainfall events will evolve and where. In addition, there is concern that seedlings that might be best at surviving the next two decades might end up as unfit young trees for surviving what comes next.
Mature trees in diverse intact forests however are more resilient to many of these stresses. Replacing such mature forests with seedlings is increasingly risky.
If seedlings in BC do struggle more than mature forests would have, it will result even more CO2 piling up in the atmosphere and even greater climate impacts. That will bring real costs for generations of Canadians in the future.
It is common practice in many industries to manage the risk of significant environmental harm through remediation bonding. Large companies contribute to a fund that then covers the cost to clean up any environmental harm left behind by the industry so Canadian taxpayers are not stuck paying the bill. Other carbon extraction industries like, oil & gas, do this.
Would this make sense for major forest carbon extraction companies in BC? Are there other ways to price in the increased risk of harm which they are imposing on others? I don't know and I'm just one person. These are decisions the British Columbian public as a whole need to consider and weigh in on how best to protect ourselves. But, again, we can't make good decisions if we don't have clarity and transparency.
I also want to highlight there are two main groups setting logging levels in BC. On private forest lands, the owning companies like Mosaic, decide how aggressively they log their private lands.
On government "crown" lands, the government sets the logging level. This is the case with the Cortes Community Forest, for example. Currently the government is requiring tenure holders to log faster than BC's public forest lands are growing back. This is reducing the age and wood volume across this landscape. And it is pouring millions of tonnes of CO2 onto the climate fire.
Stopping the rising flood waters of forest carbon pouring into our increasingly destabilized climate will require, at a minimum, that both the major corporate forest landowners and the government re-align logging levels to what BC's forest can keep up with.FINAL NOTE: About the NCASI paper
Mosaic sent me (and others) a NCASI paper with a forest carbon scenario that compared logging to not logging. If you are interested in this paper, here are some points you may want to consider.
The paper discusses results of a forest carbon computer model for one very specific scenario.
In my reading of it, I've found it impossible to tell whether this one scenario represents any real-world logging situation happening anywhere. And it certainly isn't clear how it might relate to Mosaic plans on Cortes.
The reason I can't tell is because the results of a computer model depend on the values you put into them. And the critical values used in this NCASI scenario aren't made clear. In addition, the values that would represent Mosaic plans aren't known and haven't been shared by Mosaic.
A simple analogy for forest carbon models is baking a chicken. What you pull out of the oven depends on the values you set for the two main control knobs: temperature and time. If you set them really low then you end up with cold, raw meat. If you set them really high then you get a smoldering pile of ashes.
Forest carbon models are similar. You can cook up opposite results depending on what values you use. And forest carbon models have many control knobs that dramatically impact the result. I'll just mention a few big ones and how they could be tweaked to give you a flavour for how it works.(1) Soil carbon
: Our forests in western BC hold a huge amount of carbon in a thick humus layer. During logging, much of this carbon gets turned into CO2 when the soil is exposed to and sun and heat. Setting a low value for soil carbon in the model will dramatically reduce the CO2 calculated for logging. (2) Growth rates
: These models apply different growth rates for different age classes of trees. Turning up the growth rates for seedlings and young trees results in more carbon gained by heavy logging scenarios. That's because heavily logged forests are mostly young trees. Likewise turning down the growth rate for older trees reduces the carbon gained in the no-logging alternative.(3) What the wood is used for
: The products that harvested wood gets made into determine how much CO2 is released within the timeframe of the scenario. For example, wood that is burned for energy releases all its CO2 within a year or two. Wood used for paper releases the CO2 within a few years. Wood used for long-lived products like fine furniture can take decades to release its CO2. Setting the product mix to be mostly long-lasting products reduces the CO2 calculated for logging in coming decades, while setting it more towards burning and paper increases the CO2 calculated from logging. (4) What product will be substituted for any wood not logged
: NCASI's model assumes that any reduction in logging will result in wood being replaced by some other "substitute" product. This substitute product will emit some CO2. So, the model calculates the CO2 difference between the wood product and the substitute product and says this is a cost or benefit of not logging. This CO2 difference can be either positive or negative depending on the details. For example, if you substitute Chinese coal-made steel instead of wood framing lumber, you'll calculate more CO2. But if you substitute clean BC electricity instead of burning wood for heat, you'll calculate much less CO2. By tweaking the product mix and tweaking what gets substituted you can calculate totally opposite results.
Those are just a few examples of how you can pull different results out of the forest carbon model's oven depending on which values you use. When I read the NCASI paper I couldn't find the values they used for any of those things.
But even if I could find these values, it still wouldn't be enough to know if that specific scenario applies to Mosaic's logging plans. For that I'd also need to know what values represent Mosaic's plans. And then I'd need to run the model with both sets to compare results.
Mosaic didn't supply us with a model tuned to their specific logging. I asked specifically about this. They only replied with a cryptic: "This information shared applies to your questions."
The bottom line is that the NCASI scenario is very specific to the values they put in. And exactly what those values are and how they relate to Mosaic logging in BC is not at all clear, to me at least.
I could pick values for the NCASI forest carbon model that would produce the opposite "scenario" result as theirs.
Chart showing cumulative CO2 emissions over the last decade from BC forest and the wood logged from it
Chart showing decade trends in CO2 emissions from BC forest and the wood logged from it