How can climate policy reduce our vulnerability to forest fires? It’s a complex equation - Canada's Ecofiscal Commission

How can climate policy reduce our vulnerability to forest fires? It’s a complex equation

Image of forest fire
Climate and Energy Pollution

The B.C. wildfires continue to rage, displacing tens of thousands and bringing the incredible human costs into fresh focus. Forests cover almost 35% of Canada. They are both a tremendous asset and a source of disaster. In the face of climate change, scenes similar to those in Inland B.C. will increase in frequency. How do we reduce the likelihood of future catastrophes? And how do we get the most from our forests? Smart climate policy can help with both. But it’s not all about stopping forest fires.

Forests, our climate frenemy

Among the many benefits they offer, forests are massive carbon sinks. As trees grow, they absorb and sequester carbon. When they die, rot, or burn, they emit carbon. In 2014, Canada’s 347 million hectares of forest sequestered 64 megatonnes of CO2e. In 2013, it was 170 megatonnes. Canada emitted 727 megatonnes of CO2e total in 2014. A bad fire season can swing our annual carbon balance by 15 or 20 percent.

Forests are carbon sinks overall, but this isn’t the case everywhere. At their peak, Indonesia’s devastating 2015 wildfires emitted more CO2e per day than the entire U.S. economy. Closer to home, last year’s fire in Fort McMurray released around 100 megatonnes of CO2e (of course, as the forest regrows, it will recapture some of this carbon).

Forest fires are a problem in Canada, and climate change has its thumb on the scale. Areas that currently cope with forest fires may find themselves dealing with larger and more frequent blazes, while areas that were previously safe may become vulnerable.

How can we reduce the likelihood of another Inland B.C. or Fort McMurray? And how do we maximize the carbon storage potential of our forests? Let’s tie these threads together.

Two out of three ain’t bad

This blog isn’t a guide to forest fire prevention. Instead, it examines forestry and wildfires through a climate policy lens. This obviously isn’t the only lens — or even the most important, given the suffering in B.C. right now — but it does matter.

Our report from last month laid out a framework for thinking about complementary climate policies – that is, policies that make sense in addition to carbon pricing. We didn’t devote as much space as we would have liked to the issue of forest management, so we’ll dive in here.

Climate policies that address forest emissions are numerous and varied, so much so that they fall into two of the three policy buckets we identified in our report. Since their emissions are diffuse, we cannot apply carbon pricing to forests. Forest management policies are gap-filling climate policies. In other words, there may be a rationale for managing their carbon flows through other means. Carbon offsets or credits, for instance, may have a role to play.

Second, forest management policies are also benefit-expanders because there’s more to them than carbon sequestration. Forests offer opportunities for recreation and economic activity, as well as ecosystem services like water and air purification. Fewer wildfires also means less smoke and soot, which can be quite toxic — another co-benefit.

Encouraging the growth of our forests has long been touted as good climate policy. Conversely, doing more to prevent them from burning down prevents the release of emissions. Given their massive potential as a carbon sink, the fewer forest fires, the better. Right?

Not so cut and dry

Well, not quite. Forest fires play an essential role in a healthy, robust ecosystem. They are natural, cyclical, and ultimately necessary. More to the point, fire suppression policies are often counterproductive. The longer a forest goes without a fire, the larger its “fuel load” becomes. This increases the risk that when there inevitably is a fire, it will grow larger, quicker, and spread faster. The consequences are potentially catastrophic, so it’s not as simple as suppression.

Instead, policy and practice should focus on reducing the number of catastrophic fires. This will minimize social and economics costs, help ensure the health of our forests, and help to deepen the carbon sink. We break our approach into three categories: prevention, response, and recovery.

Flaming out

First comes prevention, in the sense that we don’t want any more forest fires than we need. A common approach here is controlled burning, where certain sections of forest are strategically ignited. This helps them regenerate, and starves future fires of fuel near sensitive areas (like nearby communities). Despite its effectiveness, this method is generally unpopular. Concerns range from respiratory issues to property damage. And there is risk involved, so careful planning is vital. However, given the escalating likelihood of catastrophic forest fires, controlled burns will likely become an increasingly essential strategy. You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette.

Another option is active management of fuel loads, especially around vulnerable communities or infrastructure. Strategic removal of brush and overgrowth is less drastic (but potentially less effective) than controlled burns.

Some policies change behaviours that increase the risk of fire – and some are ecofiscal! For instance, Vancouver just introduced a $500 fine for tossing a cigarette onto grass. Measuring their impact is tricky, but education campaigns on forest fires (both their prevention and their essential ecological function) are important too. And, occasionally, bans on certain activities stop a bad problem from getting worse.

When fires occur, it’s a question of adequate emergency response to bring the fire under control quickly. The faster we respond, the more we can stop unnecessary damage and emissions. With 9% of the world’s forests, Canada has significant capacity and experience on this front. As the risk of wildfire increases and spreads, the key is ensuring that this capacity keeps pace.

After a fire occurs, governments can help speed up recovery. Policies that support the planting of fast-growing trees, seed transfers and assisted migration can help with recovery, maximizing carbon sink potential, and improving the new forest’s resilience to future climate change.

Forest for the trees

The carbon balance of our forests is a complex equation. As forests burn and die, policies that reduce the release of carbon can, bit by bit, deepen the sink. Catastrophic forest fires are a significant part of this equation.

Every forest is unique, so policymakers should tailor their approaches. But smart climate policy is at the nexus of preventing disaster and seizing opportunity. First and foremost, we fight fires to avoid the human costs. The climate co-benefits are secondary, but still significant. Getting the right mix of policies to facilitate effective management, educate and inform behaviours, and enhance response capacity can reduce the risk of catastrophe. It will also ensure that Canada gets the most from one of its greatest assets in the fight against climate change.

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