Zero Net Deforestation Act sets goals, not rules

Last week, BC’s Minister of Forests and Range, Pat Bell, announced the introduction of a new Zero Net Deforestation Act.  Minister Bell explained:

British Columbia is committed to achieving zero net deforestation by 2015 to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Forests absorb and store carbon, which make them important allies in the fight against climate change.

Deforestation – and Minister Bell is referring to the permanent conversion of forestland to other uses like real estate development or agriculture use – is a small but important contributor to BC’s greenhouse gas emissions, although it pales in comparison to emissions from industrial logging (see A New Climate for Conservation, commissioned by West Coast Environmental Law and our allies, for more information on emissions from industrial logging in BC).  treetall.jpg

West Coast Environmental Law, thus, is glad to see the province adopting a goal of zero net deforestation, while we continue to press for a more comprehensive approach to integrating nature conservation in our climate action strategies.  This goal was welcome when it was first announced in the province’s 2008 Throne Speech, and it is welcome now that it is being enshrined in law. 

Media reports have, however, left some real confusion about what the recent Zero Net Deforestation Act does or doesn’t accomplish and this record should be set straight. 

CBC simply has it wrong when it reports that “Every tree that's cut down by the forest industry in British Columbia will soon have to be replaced by a new seedling…”  While the Act as drafted could, with the right regulations, affect forestry operations, the News Release is crystal clear that the government intends to exempt timber harvesting.  And BC’s forestry laws already do generally require replanting.

But even the reporter for the Canadian Press, who clearly did read the press release, makes the mistake of suggesting that planting new forest areas  will not merely be “encouraged”, as the government’s press release suggests, but required.  Reporters need to make sure they understand what environmental legislation actually says so that they report it accurately. 

The new Act does little more than set a goal for Zero Net Deforestation and promise to work towards it.  The statement in the government’s press release, that the Act will “encourage an equal area of trees be planted for carbon storage to offset any forest land that is permanently cleared for another use” is itself a bit of an exaggeration, given the absence of substantive requirements in the Act. 

In fact, the Zero Net Deforestation Act does little more than set that goal and promise to work towards it.  It really just requires the government to develop and implement a plan to achieve its as yet fairly undefined goal of zero net deforestation.  Under the terms of the Act, the government will need to think really hard about the issue for 5 years and figure out how to address the problem by then, but  as the Hook points out (in one of the more accurate media reports on the Act), it’s not entirely clear what happens if the government misses that deadline. 

As for what the Act does not do, it does not, by itself,

  • protect any particular parcel of private or public property from conversion from forest land into urban or other non-forest uses.  This is what the Forest Land Reserve Act did, but it was repealed in 2003;
  • place any obligations or even “encourage” any private land owner to do anything to protect land from deforestation or to reforest deforested land;
  • obligate any government agency other than the Ministry of Forests and Range to do anything to protect land from deforestation or to reforest deforested land;
  • affect industrial logging (based on the promises in the press release).

What we hope is that the requirement that the Ministry of Forests report on its strategies and actions towards achieving zero net deforestation will encourage the government to put in place new policies and new laws that will directly impact the development of private and public land.  But the Act, while important, provides no guarantees on that front.  Indeed, the Ministry of Forests’ current policy is to rely on “existing incentives” – which have not, to date, halted deforestation in the province. 

Furthermore, one might have hoped that, given that the goal of zero net deforestation was announced in the 2008 Throne Speech, the Act would contain a few more details on how that target would be achieved. 

In the final analysis, the promise to plan towards the goal of zero net deforestation, as long as we see it result in new laws and policies in the coming years, is a good one.  But what the Act will actually accomplish is quite a bit more modest than some media stories have suggested.  If we are to have intelligent discussion on environmental legislation – particularly when framed as a major new initiative – the media cannot accept the rhetoric in government news releases at face value; they must make sure that their coverage does not exaggerate the environmental benefits of new legislation.

Also, this law is only a small first step in addressing the impacts of land use on climate change. It would be great if the planning required in this Act does prompt the government, at some point the future, to introduce new laws and policies that actually achieve zero net deforestation in the province. However, while important, the greenhouse gas emissions from net deforestation pale next to emissions from the industrial forest sector. We still need laws that address the importance of nature conservation in fighting climate change.