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Protect the Boreal as ‘Lung of the World’, Op-Ed Urges Canada

The boreal forest is the “lung of the world” and Canada must become its most committed steward, rather than vying with Russia and Brazil for deforestation “accolades,” says author and activist Ben Rawlence.

The boreal is “the most critical terrestrial engine that sets the terms for much of life on Earth,” writes Rawlence, author of The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, in a recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail.

“More than the Amazon, the boreal is truly the lung of the world,” Rawlence says. So Canada, as home to one third of this all-important forest, holds an “awesome responsibility” to all the rest of life on Earth. “Halting forest degradation and deforestation was one of the key planks of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s plan for keeping global warming below two degrees,” writes Rawlence, emphasizing Canada’s duty to protect the forest.

Amongst the “ecosystem services” provided by the boreal forest, and forests in general, is that of literal rainmakers. “Trees fire volatile chemicals into the atmosphere that bond to water molecules, making them heavier so they fall as rain,” writes Rawlence.

Forests are also conveyor belts for moisture, via the transpiration cycle that allow trees to suck up rain through their root systems and release water vapour through their needles. “A contiguous forest can transport water in a ‘flying river’ over thousands of miles; as the rain falls, it is transpired again into the air and moved along further inland.”

The trillion trees of the boreal forest also work together to help the winds blow. Rawlence cites research which shows how the warming of boreal forests in summer, and the consequent heat differential between them and the tundra, drive the jet stream. 

And then there is the treasure trove of medicinal and other boons to be found in the boreal forest, gifts long known to First Nations, and slowly being discovered by western science.

But now, “the southern reaches of the boreal are burning up,” Rawlence warns, and as the treeline jumps north, some Canadians might be able to move with the forest. “Most of us elsewhere, however, will not have that option.”

So “if Canada seeks to take meaningful steps on climate, then protecting the boreal forest and the extraordinary functions and services it provides to people everywhere should be top of the list.”

But “at present, Canada vies with Russia and Brazil for the accolade of highest forest degradation rate—much of it going for toilet paper in the USA.”

Rawlence concludes that Canada has much to learn about forest stewardship from First Nations, like the Anishinaabeg custodians of the Pimachiowin Aki forest on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. A UNESCO world heritage site since 2018, the forest park now “showcases how to harvest the bounty of the forest—including burning it sometimes—but without cutting it down and chewing up the precious soil with machines.”