Fires and Bugs Imperil Canada’s Push to Tap Trees in Carbon Goal

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(Bloomberg) — Wildfires and insect infestations are endangering Canada’s effort to enlist its abundant forests to reach emissions targets, according to the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

Canada’s federal government is using forestry lands and parks to claim 17 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide reductions toward its goal of reducing emissions, the research institute said in a report published Thursday. The government is also counting its promise of planting 2 billion trees to further add to its reduction goal.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing pressure to pursue a more ambitious climate agenda as countries including the U.S. and U.K. set higher targets. The country, which holds the world’s third largest oil reserves in northern Alberta’s oil sands, is the only Group of Seven nation whose harmful emissions have risen since 2015. Canada aims to cut emissions by 40% to 45% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

Forests can be seen as “carbon sinks” for their ability to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that they release. Canada has 8.5% of the world’s forests, making it the third most-forested country, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization.

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The “harsh reality” is that Canada’s managed forests have been a huge net source of carbon emissions over the past couple decades, largely due to forest fires and insect infestations that have devastated the land base and led to a large net flux of carbon dioxide, the CCPA said. A plague of mountain pine beetles have been devouring trees in British Columbia and wildfires have incinerated as much as 4.5 million hectares yearly in the past decade.

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But that doesn’t count — according to the government. Canada removed land affected by insects and fires from its count in 2017, slashing about a quarter of the nation’s managed forests from its carbon calculations, according to Marc Lee, senior economist at CCPA’s B.C. office and author of the report.

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“When you start getting into forests, a lot of these accounting games can be played,” Lee said in an interview, adding that when included those lands become “massive” carbon sources. “They should not be edited out to create a gerrymandered subset of Canada’s forests that are purportedly increasing carbon storage.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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