BLOG | Assembling risk or opportunity?: The contested mobilization of forests in climate action

Just when the so-called ‘natural climate solutions’ are being touted as common-sense response to climate change, the devastation of the world’s largest forests by wildfires grabs international attention.

Thick smoke forest fire Canada

This blog was written by Adeniyi Asiyanbi, a BIOSEC fellow who has recently started Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded research based in the department of geography at the University of Calgary.

Just when the so-called ‘natural climate solutions’ are being touted as common-sense response to climate change, the devastation of the world’s largest forests by wildfires grabs international attention.

One is compelled to ask whether forests and other vegetal landscapes are, as some claim, the mighty but forgotten bulwark against climate change? Nature4Climate, an initiative of the world’s largest environmental agencies and NGOs, suggests that “if we did things differently and allowed nature to be the powerhouse it can be, it can absorb 11 gigatonnes of CO2 a year… about the same as stopping the use of oil annually”. As corporations from the aviation to the oil and gas sectors turn to forests and other nature-based climate solutions often undergirded by market-oriented approaches, we are told here lies the untapped opportunity to avert climate breakdown and produce “positive impact on other critical environmental, social and economic benefits”, as Nature4Climate puts it.

Yet, these claims ring louder at a time when significant impacts of climate change on forests and other ecosystems become more evident. Changes in timing, duration, intensity and frequency of extreme temperature, precipitation and events such as wildfires, storms, pests and disease infestation put ecosystems (and human dependence on them) at significant risk. This year alone, wildfires have so far consumed 13 million hectares (or the size of Greece) of the Siberian forests, the world’s largest forests. And the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest so far in 2019 has increased by 85% year on year, with even higher increases of 114%, 104% and 145% reported for Bolivia, Peru and Guyana respectively. Moreover, these supposedly natural landscapes are increasingly vulnerable to global, national and local socio-economic and political dynamics from contested ownership and management of land and forests, to global commodity markets, to local and national political tensions.

Is it time we asked how initiatives seeking to mobilise forests as underutilised spaces of opportunity in addressing climate change co-exist with increasing recognition of forests as risky spaces of physical and socio-political vulnerability and climate hazard? How, by whom and with what effects are these seemingly divergent visions of forests and other ecosystems being mobilised under the changing climate? How are these visions being mobilised, reconciled, contested and with what effects? These questions are so crucial to the on-going struggle to define the role of forests in efforts to address the climate crisis – a struggle that sits at the very heart of significant claims of decarbonisation by governments, corporations and the civil society.

My new Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded research based in the department of geography at the University of Calgary will investigate some of these questions in the Canadian context, where the national climate change blueprint elevates the role of forests in emissions reduction and where public and private forest-climate investments and initiatives are being rolled out at the national, provincial and municipal levels.

Yet, Canadian forests are increasingly impacted by climate change, limiting their capacity to contribute to emission reduction on the one hand, and on the other hand, making them a significant climate hazard. Wildfires now burn an average of over 2.5 million hectares of Canadian forests each year – about twice the area burned in the 1970s – costing up to  $1.4 billion annually in fire management alone. Area burned by wildfire is expected to almost double in most parts of the country by the end of the century. As forest fires become more expansive, destructive and unpredictable under the changing climate, direct and indirect consequences for society will not only grow in significance, they will also affect the public unequally and these consequences will also be mobilised towards various ends.

The new project, which builds on my research on REDD+, focuses on the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia to understand how regimes of opportunity and risk are co-emerging around forest carbon economies and forest fires. How are these regimes being assembled, mobilised, reconciled, and contested? And what are the implications for equitable and effective governance of the forest-climate interface? Ultimately, this research seeks to bring some insights into the contested mobilisation of forests in climate action and what this means for global and local environmental politics.