Talk is Cheap, Part 2: the worst possible choices

Evidence of climate destabilisation — aberrant weather — is now everyday news. “Record-breaking” has become a routine description of wind speeds, rainfall, flood levels, mudslides, wildfires, high temperatures and drought.

The drought which afflicts BC this October of 2022 is a record-breaker and a tragedy; near Bella Bella, tens of thousands of salmon have died trying to return to their breeding grounds in streams now too warm and shallow for them to survive in. Over the last few summers, BC has lost millions of hectares of forest and entire towns to wildfire; “fire season” and multi-day smoke palls are becoming business-as-usual in mid to late summer. In December last year, flooding destroyed livestock and crops in the lower mainland. These events are happening more frequently and their severity is ramping up, slowly, year by year.

As we discussed in Part One of this story, logging plays a significant part in accelerating the ongoing slow catastrophe. For decades, the logging industry has been destroying old-growth “carbon sponge” forest, burning slash, destroying soil ecosystems, destroying the forest’s water-retention and -respiration capacity — the damage is so profound that BC’s forests which were once net carbon sinks, are now net carbon emitters. So, despite its claim to exploit a “green and renewable” resource that ensures a prosperous and healthy future for BC, the logging industry today is a major contributor to BC’s status as a world-class carbon emitter… and hence to climate disaster.

The CO2 emissions of industries such as logging, however, get less press coverage on average than do helpful suggestions on how to reduce our personal carbon footprints.

It should be more widely known that British Petroleum’s PR agency invented the “personal carbon footprint” meme in 2005 — many indeed have suggested they invented it specifically to distract and divide consumers and citizens. As a diversionary tactic, it was brilliant. It was catchy, and it redirected the public’s attention to our private lives. When we are busy with micro-accounting for our own (and all our friends’) daily choices, we are not looking at the carbon footprint of major industries, or at the unhealthy intrusion of corporate influence into regional and national politics.

While many well-meaning citizens of BC are trying to drive less, fly less, research the carbon footprint of their groceries and other purchases, relatively few are aware that the massive carbon Godzilla-print of industries such as logging or fossil fuel overwhelm all their efforts by orders of magnitude.

100 companies contribute 71% of worldwide CO2 emissions — Eco-nnect

Riding our bikes more often is a worthy choice — good for our health, good for our cities and towns. Choosing to ride rather than drive can save about 21 grams of carbon emissions per km travelled. But let’s do some math.

A ton is 907185 grams. To offset just one ton of CO2, a person would have to travel over 43 thousand km by bike rather than car.

The BC logging industry’s average CO2 emission in a year is about 40 million tons, so every single one of Canada’s approximately 40 million people would have to travel 43,000 km per year, by bike rather than car, to offset BC’s CO2 burden related to forestry.

At an average bike speed of 25 klicks, that would mean about 1720 hours of bike riding per person per year. So every person in Canada would have to ride a bike for 5 hours a day every day of the year — as an alternative to car travel over the same distance — in order to offset one year of CO2 emissions from just the forestry sector in just BC.

Nor can any amount of bike riding actively absorb CO2, in the way that a mature temperate rainforest can.

What is presently overwhelming all our attempts to slow climate change is not so much people’s stubborn insistence on driving — though that does contribute to the problem, at 21 grams per car per km on average. It’s our province’s stubborn insistence on digging up and selling more fossil fuel, and cutting down and selling all our trees.

For an example of maximally insane forestry practise, we need look no further than the Prince George area. Here, a British company called Drax is busily cutting old-growth and primary forest. Drax’s publicity claims that it uses only sawmill waste and slash — thus saving slash piles from being burnt in situ, which is supposed to be a discontinued practise anyway. But the BBC’s investigative Panorama team verified that Drax is cutting and pelletising whole logs in BC, from “primary forests” (that is Brit-speak for “old growth”).

The logs collected by Drax at Prince George will not be milled and used for housing, furniture, or even concrete forms. They will not even become paper or cardboard. They are being pelletised, the pellets then transported across Canada by rail, and subsequently by ship to the UK where Drax burns them for fuel — in the UK’s largest power station — to generate electricity.

Drax power station — BBC News

Drax has received about $7 billion (CAD) in subsidies from the British government for its “green” energy production. The massive scale of these subsidies has raised eyebrows on both sides of the pond.

Some studies suggest that burning wood pellets releases more carbon per heat unit produced than coal; Drax has recently been fined $3.2M for harmful emissions at just one of its pelletising plants; Drax is a major participant in the carbon-intensive BC logging industry (and is even now applying for more permits to do its own logging); pelletising the wood uses a lot of energy, and the pellets are then transported thousands of miles to the site of combustion… it’s no wonder questions are starting to be asked. What’s so “green” about this supply chain? (Nevertheless, Drax company literature refers to their operation as “climate positive, nature positive, and people positive” and claims they will be “carbon negative” by 2030.)

By a strange coincidence, BC’s chief forester Diane Nicholls (who aggressively promoted the wood pellet industry during the later years of her tenure) in April 2022 accepted a lucrative senior position at Drax. Ironically, her new job title is Vice President of Sustainability. Bob Simpson, Mayor of Quesnel, referred to this career shift as “messy” and said it “begs an investigation.”

Diane Nichols before career change; Canadian Biomass Magazine

Mr Simpson told The Fifth Estate that “The greenwashing of the pellet industry needs to stop…. We need to see it for what it is: It is a money-making machine for a few people based on subsidies in the U.K. at the expense of British Columbia.”

Meanwhile, Drax has plans to expand its operations in Canada. It already owns 8 out of 13 pellet mills in BC.

Given their massive subsidies from the UK government — based on a rather outdated understanding of the “renewability” of forests — and BC’s weak environmental safeguards plus what looks very much like industry capture of our regulatory agencies, Drax is poised for a smash-and-grab raid on BC’s remaining forests.

As Jens Wieting remarked in our recent interview, “they [the wood pellet industry] are really degrading landscapes where recently there was little interest in logging for other industries; but the pellet industry really functions like a vacuum. They will go after any form of biomass whether it’s a degraded landscape or an intact forest. If they can get their hands on it, they will go for it. And sadly the standards in Bridge Columbia are very low.”

The UK government has spent huge amounts of taxpayer money to subsidise this destructive industry, on the erroneous assumption that it is “green” or “sustainable.” BC is spending huge amounts of taxpayer money subsidising fossil fuel extraction and marketing — and courting international companies like Drax with their infinite appetite for softwood.

Pellet Mill in US — BlackRock Has A Problem (photo by SPLC)

In face of the slowly grinding climate emergency, our governments are — like hapless characters in some summer blockbuster scare movie — consistently making the worst possible decisions. They are destroying the forests that could slow or mitigate the rising carbon concentration in our atmosphere; they refuse to scale back on fossil fuel extraction and combustion; our officials and administrators are in many cases far too cosy with industry, indulging in gross conflicts of interest and promoting practises harmful to citizens and to the nation’s (and the world’s) best interests.

What would be the best possible decisions?

“What we really have to do, is we have to leave the vast majority of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground and join international coalitions like the Beyond Oil and Gas coalition; that’s a group of countries, including Denmark, Costa Rica, and others, that have already committed to phasing out fossil fuel production and leaving fossil fuels in the ground.” So says Jens Wieting.

How do we force our governments to turn away from the resource-extracting moneyed interests who have their undivided attention? How do we force them to listen to the public’s concerns about climate change?

“Well, right now, Sierra Club BC and many other environmental organizations are focusing on keeping the pressure up on the BC government to acknowledge and address the gaps in their climate action plans.” Keeping up the pressure includes taking the government to court in an attempt to increase transparency and accountability; Sierra Club BC is in court right now, trying to make the government at least comply with its own legal requirements for reporting on GHG emissions and progress on carbon-reduction targets.

“So we really have to raise awareness about this huge challenge — and it’s clear the next premier, whoever wins the leadership race with the BC NDP, has to act! because there’s no way to meet our targets unless the BC government develops a policy to ensure that we have a limit on growth, a limit on LNG. and then develop a plan to wind down the fossil fuel industry.”

And, if we’re to achieve any of those climate/carbon goals, it looks like we have to wind down or radically re-imagine forestry as well. As logging protesters have asserted repeatedly, our forests are worth more standing. Restored to health, they would help to mitigate the climate chaos already baked in to our future. If we go on destroying them, we will only render climate change and its consequences even more severe.

Top image credit: Flooding BC Nov 2021, image by BC Hydro