In 1994 Greenpeace released a report called “The Carbon Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests”. The report warned that between 50 and 90 percent of the existing boreal forests were likely to disappear as a result of climate changes that would happen if atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide doubled. Warmer and drier conditions stress trees directly, as well as contributing to conditions that could lead to more frequent fires and pest outbreaks. If boreal forests continued to decline, they could release of up to 225 billion metric tons of extra carbon into the atmosphere, increasing current levels by a third.

The recent wildfires that have burned roughly 874,750 acres in Fort McMurray, Canada are a sign that the carbon bomb may be beginning to explode. An El Nino year contributed to a particularly dry winter, and record temperatures and low humidity this May set the stage for a brutal fire season. While individual occurrences of fires, just as individual occurrences of hurricanes, are impossible to tie to climate change, scientists agree that more frequent and intense fires on average are expected.

According to Natural Resources Canada, the boreal forest, or taiga, covers 3.7 billion acres, or which makes up a third of the world’s forests. It extends through Alaska and Canada in the Western hemisphere, and Scandinavia, Russia and northern Asia. In addition, boreal soils include large areas of permafrost and peatlands, which themselves can be large sources of carbon and methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, if they breakdown through thawing or burning. Currently, more than 4.9 million acres of forest burn each year in Canada. This is twice the average area burned in the early 1970s.

recommendations-to-rggi-0611082 cropForests play an incredibly important role in climate change internationally and nationally, but policy solutions have proven elusive in the United States. In May of 2008, Acadia Center (then Environment Northeast), Manomet and the Maine Forest Center, released recommendations for how to expand forest offset categories in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). These recommendations outlined how, with rigorous measurement and verification, projects that decreased carbon emissions from logging and land development could be used to meet part of the emissions requirements of the program.

In 2013, the RGGI states released updated program rules which incorporated these new forest categories, harmonizing rules with a similar program in California. To date the low price of auction allowances has meant that no forest projects have been used to comply with RGGI. However, some forest offset projects located in the Northeast have been registered in the California carbon market, which has had much higher prices.

At the federal level, implementation of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the US, has been stayed by the Supreme Court. If the program goes forward, it is expected that states that are already implementing emission reduction programs, such as RGGI, will be allowed to use these programs to comply with the federal program. The role of offsets in meeting EPA requirements remains uncertain.

Clearly, protecting the carbon stored in forests is essential to preventing a dangerous climate tipping point. However, the threats to forests from climate change itself, as shown in the fires raging around Fort McMurray, highlight that concerns over the permanence of carbon stored in forest projects were not misplaced.

Additional Reading
The Carbon Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests – by Greenpeace, 1994
Forest Future: The Role Forests Can Play in Addressing Climate and Promoting Sustainable Economies – by ENE (now Acadia Center), 2010
Turning Up the Heat: Global Warming and the Degradation of Canada’s Boreal Forest – by Greenpeace, 2008

Ellen HawesEllen Hawes is the Senior Analyst, Energy Systems and Carbon Markets at Acadia Center. Ellen’s work as senior analyst focuses on energy systems, land use and carbon markets. She also leads Acadia Center’s participation in New Hampshire energy policy work. Ellen received her Master in Forestry from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.