Centuries-old forests spreading the landscape in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, have become a battlefield for two schools of thought on combating climate change: one that wants to use their biomass for green power, and another that is eager to to protect carbon-absorbing trees.
Scientists and campaigners are putting increasing pressure on the provincial government to conserve especially older bushveld, which is often rich in biodiversity and a large supply of carbon.
But growing climate concerns have also encouraged the growth of British Columbia’s biomass industry, which produces wood pellets that are treated as a “carbon-neutral” fuel.
Major producers include the power company Drax, which has tried rediscover itself as a generator of clean energy. The UK-listed company acquired Canadian wood grain producer Pinnacle last year, and plans to double production and sales of grain by 2030.
Although biomass fuels have become a major source of energy in the EU and Asia, some scientists are increasingly skeptical about the environmental evidence of burning wood for energy.
In British Columbia, some wood from old trees ends up in grains. Although it remains legal, campaigners fear the practice is unsustainable, saying it undermines the argument of biomass advocates that pellets are a responsible alternative to fossil fuels.
Some producers fear the provincial government will introduce stricter crop quotas to reduce the amount of old bushveld that can be cut down.
British Columbia “should not issue permits to sign up [old] forests, ”said Michelle Connolly, director of the Conservation North advocacy group. “They have the power and they should know better,” she added.
The extent of the harvest of old trees was “crazy”, says Rachel Holt, a member of the independent Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel convened by the provincial government last year. “These are incredibly rare, extremely high-value forests. . . “You cannot sustainably cut and harvest 200-year-old trees,” she said.
According to official figures, about a quarter of all forests harvested each year in British Columbia are classified as “old growth” – typically referring to trees that are more than 140 or 250 years old, depending on location.
The province’s grain industry has fast growing since the early 2000s, while related activities such as paper production have shrunk. The market has attracted investments from companies that want to convert coal plants to biomass plants. Grain mills typically obtain wood from the areas around them – largely the waste and remains of trees harvested for other purposes, producers said.
All seven of Pinnacle’s mills in British Columbia are surrounded by woodland that includes “primary” forests – native and often old trees that have not been disturbed by human activities – according to an analysis of government data by Conservation North.
A recent report commissioned by Drax found that supply to two Pinnacle mills could shrink as a result of the provincial government’s efforts to protect old forests.
Drax said its Canadian grains were “made from waste fiber that would be burned, dumped or left to rot along the way.” Eighty percent of this waste fiber comes from sawmill residues and 20 percent comes from crop residues. ”
Under pressure to reconsider how old forests should be managed, the provincial government commissioned an independent review in 2019. The report, published in 2020, ended that the economy was “heavily dependent on trees harvested from primary forests of old trees” and set out recommendations such as delaying development in sensitive areas.
Garry Merkel, a forester, member of the region’s native Tahltan nation and lead author of the report, said old forests are “critical” to the health of ecosystems and are “not renewable”, adding: “We need more think about it. mining. ”
The British Columbia Ministry of Forests said it was “committed to improving the way we care for our forests” and would implement the report’s recommendations.
The region’s forest industries are closely monitoring whether stricter restrictions will follow.
The 2020 report from Drax on the supply to Pinnacle’s mills said that government measures to protect biodiversity and old growth “resulted in partial extractions of land from the availability of timber crops. . . in some areas harvesting has been banned, while in others it may continue on a modified basis. ”
Further restrictions may be “in the pipeline”, the report said.
Canfor, a timber company and Pinnacle supplier, implied in documents that it had harvested old growth, noting a transition “from harvesting mainly old growth to harvesting managed plots [of trees]”Took place after the first two decades of logging in a particular area.
Canfor said the company is “committed to applying world-class sustainable crop and forest management practices” and follows “a comprehensive BC government permit system”.
Drax has converted four of the six units at its Yorkshire, England power station from coal to woody biomass. However, it fell from the S&P Global Clean Energy Index in October due to a high “carbon intensity” score. Meanwhile, a December Citi analyst note said “we do not fundamentally see biomass as a sustainable source of energy”, reflecting concerns about treating wood pellets as environmentally friendly.
British Columbia’s Forest Industries Council said the province had “world leader in sustainable harvesting and active forest management practices”. It said timber companies minimize wastage by selling waste – whether from old-growing trees or younger bushveld – to groups including paper and grain mills.
But Merkel, the forester, said even this approach had exhausted ecosystems, adding that “there is no such thing as waste in nature”.
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