I’ve been a little quiet this last week because I’ve had to travel to the other side of the planet for what turned out to be a very interesting and scientifically lucrative workshop. After travelling 31 hours from Adelaide to Umeå in northern Sweden, I wondered to myself if it was going to be worth it for a 2.5-day workshop on a little island (Norrbyskär) in the Baltic Sea (which, as it turned out, didn’t have internet access).
The answer is a categorical ‘yes’!
Many of you know that I’ve dabbled in boreal forest conservation in the past, but I could never claim any real expertise in the area. Hence it came as something of a shock when Jon Moen of Umeå University asked me to attend a specialist workshop focused loosely on making the plight and importance of the boreal forest more widely acknowledged. I dragged my feet initially, but Jon convinced me that I could add something to the mix.
It was a small workshop, but well-represented by all boreal countries save Norway (i.e., we had Russians, Swedes, Finns, Canadians and Americans – this Australian was indeed the odd one out). We also had a wide array of expertise, from carbon accountants, political scientists, political economists, native cultures experts, ecologists to foresters. Our mandate – justify why we should pay more attention to this globally important region.
Just how important is the boreal forest? We managed to unearth some little-appreciated facts:
- Although most of the boreal forest’s carbon is stored underground (a whopping 92 % of it), it contains about the same amount as all the tropical forests in the Americas (yes, including the Amazon). If you include the carbon in its peatlands, then it contains about 1.3 times the total amount stored in all the world’s tropical forests.
- Similarly, the carbon density (kg/hectare) of the boreal forest is about the same as the tropics.
- Although the boreal forest has been a net carbon sink at least since the last glacial maximum, it is quickly losing that capacity. In some places, it has already become a net carbon source (emitting more than it takes up). This is a combination of ‘relaxation’ or ‘equilibration’ since the last glacial maximum, increasing droughts which reduce photosynthesis and growth, increased fires, increased insect outbreaks (the latter two arise from inter alia, climate change).
- With deforestation, fires, insect outbreaks, droughts, climate change and peat harvest, the boreal forest will probably be a net source of carbon over the next few hundred years or so (starting within the next few decades). It is unlikely to become a sink again unless we can stop some of the major perturbations from becoming too frequent or intense.
- While the boreal region holds relatively few ‘threatened’ species according to global-scale assessments (e.g., IUCN Red List), national assessments show that most taxa have comparable if not higher threat proportions compared to the Red List (see the supplementary information in our 2009 paper).
- Forestry might not be the biggest income earners for boreal countries as a proportion of the total economy, for most of its reach, it is one of the most important regional employers and wealth generators. Getting forestry right is key.
- No one can yet count most of the boreal forest as a carbon offset because of impediments to carbon-trading incentives under the Kyoto Protocol. So all that carbon isn’t being valued.
- The boreal region hosts a huge array of essential and valuable ecosystem services, including food provision (meat, berries, mushrooms), timber supply, water supply, recreation, etc. We need to start trading and therefore, valuing these services.
The call for more international attention on the boreal forest couldn’t come at a better time. Rio +20 is about to get underway, yet there is no consideration of forests in any of the sustainable development goals. A major oversight, in our opinion.
We have crystallised these components into a punchy policy piece that should see the light of published day in the next month or so. We’re also presenting a series of supporting papers at the Ecosummit conference in the USA this October, that should be published in a special issue of a yet-to-be-determined journal. I’ll keep CB readers posted.