Evan Saugstad: How many trees do we need?

saugstad

Our federal election is over, and we now get to see what promises move forward to become our new reality. Among the hundreds of promises that were made, one that got my attention and made me think was adding more trees to Canada’s landscape, all for the sake of storing carbon.

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The Greens proposed to add 10 billion new trees and only god knows how many billions more they would have saved by shuttering many of our industries that currently use our forests.

The Liberals promised two billion more new trees and I would guess we are about to find out how many billion more trees they will save as they continue down their path of banning the industrial use of our forests by creating more parks and protected areas.

Although it is hard to predict just what we will get from a minority government, the propensity is for all governments to renege on promises when they see them fully costed and competing for our tax dollars. In this case, a program that will have a direct negative impact on government’s financial returns, as these new trees will not return any dollars to the Canadian coffers, at least for as long as they are being used to store carbon and not for financial return.

Without a doubt, I can say that I am a tree person and I have nothing against planting more. I worked for many years in the forest industry, from developing forest harvesting plans, to cutting them down and then renewing our forest through replanting. I also spent years fighting wildfire and helped to spare millions from their untimely deaths.

I also realize that trees have their place, and aren’t welcome just anywhere, in terms of location, species, density, and size. Trees in the wrong places can create more havoc than good.

All this talk of trees got me thinking, so I did a bit of research.

It is estimated that Canada has about 9,000 trees for every man, woman and child in Canada – about 338,400,000,000 (338 billion). Forty per cent of our 979 million hectares is currently forest or covered by some type of forest vegetation. Our forests represent 30% of the world’s total and 9% of the overall forest cover in the entire world.

And we want to add another two billion over the next 10 years, which, if divided by year, is about 300 million per year. To put that into perspective, the forest industry, private and government, already plants between 500 million and 650 million trees every year, at a rate of about 1,500 trees per hectare. The vast majority of this is to replace forests that have been harvested.

But it isn’t the fact that we have so many trees, that we already plant so many and now want to plant more that got me to thinking and wondering. I do wonder where we might find the space for these new trees, or about the costs, or who might do this work, and will these trees ever get big and old enough to do the job they were supposed to do? That is not what I got stuck on.

I got stuck because my poor analytical brain could not comprehend how another two or three billion new trees will solve Canada’s contribution to climate change or the lack of sequestered carbon.

In my research, I found this statement: “Some scientists estimate that adding 500 billion trees in the ‘right’ places could remove roughly two thirds of all emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.” Now, I realize that 10,000 scientists did not sign off on this statement, but I will still assume that, at face value, this is correct. And, in doing this, I will note that Canada already has two thirds of the required number of trees to do exactly this same task.

Put another way, if our trees are already responsible of removing two thirds of all carbon dioxide emissions produced since the start of the industrial revolution, why are we now so concerned about our share of the world’s current production of carbon emissions, 1.6% of the current world production? 

As a country, aren’t we right up there near that top in terms of removing carbon from earth’s atmosphere?

And, why aren’t we talking about this, at least in terms of how Canada is actually affecting the rest of the world?

Why are we only talking about us Canadians leading the world in carbon emissions per person while we try to stay warm in our cold climate, move about in our vast landscape, and how we produce too much oil and natural gas for the rest of the world to turn into their energy?

Well, in my flat earth view, it is all politics and our politicians got snookered while drinking fine wine and eating pate foie gras at all those world climate change extravaganzas. Yes, it sounds to me that they were asleep when the rest of world decided we only need to commit to reducing our emissions production, and not take into account those countries that have the most forests are the ones that are doing the most to remove emissions from the atmosphere.

Yes, don’t think too much about what we have or what we are doing in terms of good forest management and growing more trees to help solve the problem; lets just penalize us good Canadians and make us pay more for our politicians' dumb mistakes and commitments.

Now, before I close off, I do say that I was not the shiniest pebble at math class, and I can stand to be corrected if my math doesn’t add up. I also can be corrected if my assumptions are not correct about how Canada and our forests are already hard at work and leading the world in saving ourselves from our own destruction.

If I have misspoke, then please explain to me why we, as Canadians, cannot use our good fortune of having so much forest and so many trees, as our contribution to this whole climate debate, or as some would say, charade?

Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and lives in Fort St. John.

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