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The Boreal Forest Shields Us from Global Warming

 
 

Forests naturally slow the rates of human-caused global warming by storing carbon. Carbon storage is a natural process whereby living plants and trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis as they grow. Research suggests that over the last century, nearly 100 billion tonnes of carbon have been absorbed by the world’s forests after being released into the atmosphere by human activity.1 This absorption helps to slow the rate of global warming.

The circumpolar boreal forest is the world’s largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon, exceeding even the total carbon stored in the Amazon. The circumpolar boreal contains approximately 22% of total carbon stored in the planet’s land surfaces. Carbon is stored in terrestrial vegetation, forests, soils, peat, and lake sediments.2

Global and North American Boreal MapsThe boreal ecosystem is uniquely suited for carbon storage. Boreal forests hold the greatest amount of carbon of any terrestrial ecosystem per unit area.  The global boreal forest stores almost twice as much carbon as tropical forest and almost three times as much as temperate forest.3 This is largely because in boreal climates, the cold temperature reduces decomposition rates and carbon-rich wetlands are abundant.

Canada's boreal forest stores an estimated 208 billion tonnes of carbon.4 Roughly 56% of all this carbon is stored in peat.5 The remaining carbon is pooled in above-ground vegetation, rocks, and soil.6 Overall, Canada's boreal forest stores the equivalent of 26 years worth of the world’s carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels at 2006 levels.7  

It is economically beneficial for Canada to preserve the boreal. Given that the total estimate for carbon stored within Canada’s Boreal region is 208 billion tonnes, the value of this carbon in the European Carbon Emissions trading system would be more than $1.3 trillion in U.S. dollars.8


1 Jardine, K. The Carbon Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests. Greenpeace International. (1994)
2 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2000. Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry. R.T. Watson, I.R. Noble, B. Bolin, N.H. Ravindranath, D.J. Verardo, and D.J. Dokken (eds.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.
3 Ibid.
4 Carlson, M., Wells, J., Roberts, D. 2009. The Carbon the World Forgot: Conserving the Capacity of Canada’s Boreal Forest Region to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change. Boreal Songbird Initiative and Canadian Boreal Initiative, Seattle, WA, and Ottawa. 33 pp.
5
Tarnocai, C. The effect of climate change on carbon in Canadian peatlands. Global and Planetary Change, 53:222-232. (2006)
6 Apps, M.J. et al. Boreal Forests and Tundra. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 70 (1-4). (1993)
7 Global carbon emissions from 2000-2005 averaged around 7.2 million metric tones per year. IPCC Report from working group 1:Policymakers Summary of the Scientific Assessment of Climate Change. (2007)
8 This figure uses an estimate by IFC consulting from 2003 that at the lower end of market expectations a tonne of carbon may be worth 5 euros. 

   

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Banner photo credit: CPAWS, by Juri Peepre