Dispatches From Caribou Country

Crossposted from Torontoist.com, where there are also accompanying images and illustrations.

“What are you doing tonight,” asked a friend of mine Monday afternoon. “Well,” I said, “I’m going to an event called ‘Caribou Country: Our Shield Against Global Warming.'”

“You lost me at Caribou,” my friend replied.

We’re told that environmental issues are at the top of everyone’s mind, but anecdotal evidence suggests that that attention may be narrowly focused. This new environmentalism, it seems, is all about carbon: emissions, taxes, and credits. Carbonmania, the result of increased awareness around the climate crisis, is perhaps a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has undeniably given the environmental movement a shot in the arm and triggered a new wave of awareness and debate about our only home’s life support systems. On the other, it has hogged the spotlight, leaving other equally important environmental issues in the shadows.

Or, it should be said, other related aspects of the same macro-environmental issue. Because, as climatologists routinely point out, climate change is a crisis that did not evolve in isolation from other environmental crises, nor can it be solved in isolation. In short, there’s more to this than carbon itself.

And yet, with a title like “Caribou Country,” Monday night’s event—presented by Wildlands League (the Ontario chapter of CPAWS, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) at the University of Toronto’s Hart House—caused our friend to think of the old “hippy, tree hugging” environmentalism: a kind of thinking that seems (to many) to exist in isolation from the practical reality of every day life, the kind of environmentalism that is “out there,” and doesn’t affect us directly. This line of reasoning, as the speakers at the event explained, is faulty.

“Caribou Country” refers to Canada’s boreal region, which occupies 35% of total Canadian land area and 77% of Canada’s total forest. It also refers to an ecosystem that is on the run. In 1880 the forest (and, along with it, the caribou population) extended south almost to Algonquin park; today it has retreated to the remote north of Ontario, well above Sault Ste Marie. And while its preservation may seem like a distant “nice to have,” the health of the boreal ecosystem is inextricably linked to our choice between increasing or decreasing the destructiveness of climate change.

Crisis Gone Global

The difference between the amount of intact forest pre and post industrialization—a reduction of 70%—is striking when seen on a map. Overlay that map on a photo of the Earth at night from space, and there’s an inverse relationship between the areas that are lit up and the areas that still have wildlife. The immensity of that change means that environmental problems are now global instead of local, which is why we can no longer afford to think of wilderness protection as an altruistic frill.

It also means that we’re entrusted with decisions and responsibilities that have effects far beyond our own boarders. Canada has 20% of the Earth’s wild forests, 20% of its fresh water (which is purified by forest systems), and 50% of the global population of 40 species. In other words, we hold the ability to have a huge impact on the entire globe, be it positive or negative.

Burning The Planet At Both Ends

In order to understand why that is, we need a basic understanding of the carbon cycle. Discussions regarding global warming tend to focus on one half of the cycle: those things that emit carbon, including fires, volcanic explosions, and decompositions. It’s equally important for us to understand the other half of the cycle, however, which is concerned with those things that store (or sequester) carbon: forests (trees and other vegetation), oceans, other biological process, and deep storage including petroleum, marble, coal, and lime stone.

Most people now have a good understanding of how we’ve contributed to climate change by burning fossil fuels and thereby emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases in a short period of time. What’s less well understood is that we’ve also seriously harmed the planet’s “carbon sinks,” those systems that store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere. You could say we’re burning the Earth at both ends. Therefore, when we talk about fighting climate change, we need to recognize not only the importance of reducing emissions, but also the importance of preserving and ultimately expanding our planet’s natural carbon sinks.

Those sinks are in serious trouble. Recent evidence suggests that the world’s Oceans—which normally absorb a full quarter of all carbon emitted into the atmosphere—have become saturated and are shutting down their absorption. Other research has shown the level of carbon in the atmosphere to have exceeded 450 parts per million, a particularly frightening reality since the scientific consensus was that that wouldn’t happen for another ten years. The last thing we need to be doing is actively destroying the boreal forest, which has the highest concentration of land-based carbon in Canada, which, in turn, holds 30% of all the land-stored carbon in the world.

Oh, and here’s a kicker. Global warming is having a negative impact on the boreal ecosystem itself, so the more of it we damage, the more vulnerable it becomes to future climate shocks, creating a feedback loop.

Paying The Price 

The primary cause of destruction of caribou habitat is logging, while diamond mining and large-scale hydro electric projects also have a serious impact. Dr. Anastasia M. Lintner, a lawyer and economist with Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund), spoke last and had the responsibility of suggesting solutions to these problems. She proposed a move towards a “low carbon economy,” which she described as an economy where there are deep reductions in emissions due to the internalization of carbon costs (you must pay a price to pollute), and where we aim to “sink carbon” once we’ve reduced our emissions. (In other words, it’s not enough to reduce our emissions, we must actually reverse them.) One of the ways to do this is to set up a carbon trading system, where companies (or, theoretically, individuals) who have made reductions in carbon can sell those “credits” on a stock exchange-like market to other companies or individuals who have not reduced their emissions. Linter emphasized that these kinds of actions must be mandatory if they’re going to work, unlike the current federal government’s plans to promote “aspirational” targets (which are a step below “voluntary”). As an example, she pointed to the EU carbon exchange, where there are mandatory rules and the price of a tonne of carbon is around $30. On the Chicago carbon exchange, which is voluntary, the price is less than $2 per tonne.

It’s important to place a price on carbon so that we can make intelligent decisions about what it’s worth to release it into the atmosphere. So, what does that mean in real numbers? According to Linter, “allocated forest” in Ontario (meaning the parts that are slated to be cut down) currently stores 1,363 Mt (mega tonnes) of carbon, even without including the peat lands (which store far more carbon per hectare than the forest area does). On the EU carbon exchange, keeping that carbon in the ground would be worth $8,200,000,000. At that price, it makes no economic sense to log any more of the forest

Although, Linter argued that the area of forest below the cut-line isn’t commercially viable without subsidization anyway. Our forest industry is struggling because we can’t compete with fast-growing other parts of the world with lower labour costs. Instead, we need to think about how this industry will transition and diversify. We can take advantage of emerging “green” markets while simultaneously preserving threatened woodland Caribou habitat and fighting climate change. And we need to ask ourselves, “what is the dollar value we want to place, as a society, on keeping the forest intact, on the water and air that it cleans, on the carbon it keeps sequestered?”

Using this strategy, Linter says we can successfully 1) fight climate change, 2) preserve caribou habitat, and 3) position Ontario as a leader in emerging green markets and the future low carbon economy.

Caribou live in the most carbon rich environment on the planet. We in Canada have a global trust to keep that carbon where it is, and to keep the ecosystem intact so that it’s more resilient to the impacts of climate change. If we succeed, our success will be global. Likewise if we fail. From a climate change perspective, a wilderness perspective, and an economic perspective, the choice is clear. We must act before it’s too late, and the clock is ticking.

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