By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Politicians actually listened when experts told them to protect Canada’s boreal forest, a potent weapon against global warming, and the plan for this vast green area could work on some of the world’s other vital places, scientists told Reuters.
Bigger than the Amazon and better than almost anywhere else on the planet at keeping climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere, the boreal forest stretches across 1.4 billion acres (566.6 million hectares) from Newfoundland to Alaska.
More importantly, the boreal is in good condition, and the scientists’ plan aims to keep it that way.
"There’s not a lot of these really big chunks of ecosystem left," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University, said in a joint interview on Tuesday with several environmental experts.
"So we understand that were we to destroy this, the consequences would be vast. The carbon implications alone are significant, especially at a time when 20 percent of global carbon emissions come from deforestation."
Pimm and 13 other environmental experts are part of an international team to be formally unveiled this week, which will monitor the protection of the boreal forest.
This continent-wide swath, covered mostly with fir trees and wetlands, is the world’s largest carbon "bank" on land, storing almost twice the carbon per square yard (meter) as tropical forests because of the rich composition of its soil.
The area now holds 186 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 27 years worth of global carbon emissions. If all of the boreal carbon was released, it would theoretically accelerate global warming by 27 years.
It also has huge reserves of fresh water and habitat for healthy populations of wildlife, including moose, caribou, songbirds and migratory waterfowl.
PRESSURE FROM LOGGING, OIL, MINING
Only 10 percent of the forest is now protected, and much of the land is under pressure from corporate logging, mining and oil and gas operations, Steven Kallick of the Pew Environment Group said in the interview with Pimm and others.
Logging is of particular concern to climate experts, because deforestation is blamed by U.N. studies for causing 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.
The plan to preserve the boreal forest picked up momentum last year when 1,500 scientists from more than 50 countries called for its protection.
In July, the government of Ontario agreed to strictly protect half of its boreal lands and to sustainably manage the other half, with no extraction of minerals or other natural resources allowed.
Last week, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, now campaigning for re-election, pledged to do the same if he wins. Canadian businesses also have endorsed the plan, and Kallick said there is a good chance most provincial governments will as well.
While Canada’s boreal forest is the best candidate for protection, the same plan for strict preservation might be applied to other places around the world. These include parts of the western Amazon, Siberia, Congo and the Australian outback, the scientists said.
Jeremy Kerr, a biogeographer at the University of Ottawa, said he and other scientists were surprised and delighted that Canadian politicians have been persuaded by science.
"As scientists, for decades ... we have targeted our efforts at saving the last remnants of things that have been pushed to the brink of total destruction," Kerr said.
"Here ... we have massive intact ecosystems and we have advised policymakers that if they want to have a sustainable future, they have to protect those intact ecosystems, and they have actually started to do so."
Because most exports of Canada’s natural resources go to the United States, whatever impact the protection plan has locally will also be felt south of the Canadian border.
But the big forest’s effect as a brake on climate change will be a global benefit, said Jeff Wells, senior scientist with the International Boreal Conservation Campaign.
"In this world of difficult (environmental) conditions ... you feel like you have to do a million things to solve the problem," Wells said. "Here we have a one-stop solution to keep the carbon in the bank and provide resilience for species."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)