The old-growth logging blockades in TFL 46 have impacted Teal Cedar’s logging far more than anyone apparently wants to admit.
Ordinary British Columbians march across the wide exclusion zone set up by the RCMP at Fairy Creek Rainforest (Photo by Alex Harris)
A FEW WEEKS AGO, just before BC Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson denied an extension of an injunction against old-growth forest defenders on southern Vancouver Island, climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at a Youth4Climate event in Milan. Yes, there is a connection.
Thunberg’s much-quoted speech went like this: “There is no Planet B. Blah, blah, blah. Build Back Better. Blah, blah, blah. A green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises. Of course we need constructive dialogue. But they’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah. Where has that led us? Over 50 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions have occurred since 1990, and one-third since 2005. If this is what they consider to be climate action, then we don’t want it. They invite—cherry pick—young people to meetings like this to pretend that they are listening to us. But they are not. They are clearly not listening to us, and they never have. Just look at the numbers. Emissions are still rising. The science doesn’t lie.”
Even as Thunberg heaped scorn on governments around the world for their inaction, forest activists in BC were successfully cutting the immense carbon emissions caused by a single logging company, Teal Cedar Ltd. How do we know this?
Buried in a BC government database is an interesting record that should give the Fairy Creek forest defenders and climate activists a moment of pride and hope. The numbers show the defenders have gone far beyond institutional blah, blah, blah and are now deep into the realm of effective action to reduce emissions. In fact, they may be pioneering the kind of action that is apparently going to be needed—given institutional failure to act—to actually reduce carbon emissions.
Like all other companies logging publicly owned forest on Crown land in BC, Teal Cedar’s cut is tracked by the ministry of forests’ Harvest Billing System. The volumes it records are made public. The ministry’s records show that in the first 8 months of 2021, overall logging by all companies on the BC coast was up by 40 percent over the same period in 2020. That’s because there were extraordinarily high prices for lumber at the time. But Teal’s own volumes were down 40 percent over the same period in 2020. Effectively, Teal’s logging volume was down 80 percent from what we would have expected.
This decline in Teal’s operations occurred both on its Tree Farm Licence 46 on Vancouver Island and in Timber Supply Area 30 in the Chilliwack Natural Resource District. Teal’s decline on the mainland, where there were no blockades, was smaller than the decline on Vancouver Island where the blockades have occurred, but it was still substantial. Yet in its application to the BC Supreme Court for an extension of the injunction against the blockades, Teal didn’t mention this huge decline in its logging. Instead, in making a case that the blockades were harming the company economically, it focussed on the much smaller decline in its operation that resulted from not being able to access trees behind blockades.
We can speculate on why Teal experienced such a dramatic decline in its logging operations, but we don’t know for sure. Teal and the lawyer handling its injunction extension application did not respond to repeated requests for information. One possibility is that Teal was unable to assure its logging contractors, both on Vancouver Island and the mainland, that their operations wouldn’t be subject to blockades. With plenty of other logging occurring in a red-hot lumber market, those companies may have opted for less controversial settings in which to work. Another possibility is that the negative publicity Teal’s old-growth logging has received internationally has affected its ability to sell products that use old-growth forests, like cedar shakes and shingles.
The decline in Teal’s logging is unexpectedly good news for those British Columbians concerned about the province’s outsized contributions to the climate crisis and the collapse in biodiversity. Clearcut logging significantly exacerbates both those growing threats to civilizational stability. Consider the impact on emissions from the reduction in Teal’s logging.
If Teal had performed as well in the first 8 months of 2021 as did other coastal logging companies, the carbon emissions associated with its logging would have been approximately 692,000 tonnes higher than they were. (See the methodology we used for this calculation.) That’s roughly equivalent to 70 percent of the emissions attributable to annual cement production in BC, and it’s equivalent to taking 150,000 typical passenger vehicles off the road for a year in BC. That’s real action.
The blockades, it turns out, are the opposite of “blah, blah, blah.”
Although it’s not clear why the blockades had such a dramatic effect on Teal’s logging, it’s apparent that this is a far more effective way to reduce carbon emissions than any of the blah-blah-blah schemes dreamed up so far by the provincial government. The most recent data shows provincial emissions rose from 66 megatonnes in 2017 to 68.5 megatonnes in 2018. Those numbers, though, don’t include emissions resulting from forest removal or the impact on atmospheric carbon from the loss of carbon sequestration capacity caused by logging. Nor does it include the emissions from forest fires that have been made worse by the growing area of clearcuts and highly flammable plantations that now dominate the southern half of BC.
While our political institutions are failing to reduce emissions, the blockades are succeeding.
The public, it would seem, has found an effective way to counter the damage being done to an important public interest—climate stability—by a private company whose damaging activity is sanctioned by the BC government.
This has created an interesting tension between the judicial system and the political system. Instead of resolving the old-growth logging issue in a substantive fashion like Premier Horgan said he would during last year’s election campaign, the premier and his cabinet decided to kick the issue into the judicial system and let the RCMP knock some sense into the old-growth defenders. But the depth of commitment of the Fairy Creek forest defenders to the larger public interest involved—protecting the planet’s life support system—guaranteed Horgan’s maneuver wouldn’t work. So when Teal sought to extend the injunction, the court tried to kick the issue back where it belongs.
In his written decision, Justice Thompson wrote, “While a powerful case might be made for the protection of what remains of British Columbia’s old growth temperate rainforests, and this issue is of considerable public interest and importance, the evidence marshalled to support this argument cannot be considered. With due respect for the forceful submissions I received to the contrary, I conclude that to take account of this type of public interest would amount to contempt of constitutional constraints on judicial powers.”
Instead of the public interests that motivated the forest defenders to set up the blockades, Justice Thompson focussed on what he called “legally relevant public interests.” For Justice Thompson this boiled down to the controversial behaviour of some members of the RCMP enforcing the injunction and, arising from that behaviour, “the public interest in protecting the Court from the risk of further depreciation of its reputation.”
Thompson declined to extend the injunction based on his concern for the court’s reputation. That would have created more pressure on Horgan to take more substantive action to resolve the conflict. Ironically, the court’s reputation was further depreciated by the subsequent stay on Thompson’s decision granted by Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein.
This is a remarkable frustration of the public interest: On the one hand we have the actions of a small but courageous group of BC citizens that have caused the emissions associated with a logging company’s operations to decline by over 690,000 tonnes. On the other hand, we have the court making a decision based on its concern about its public image being damaged by the RCMP, followed by a quick, image-damaging reversal of that decision.
Which of these two actions—the blockaders reducing carbon emissions or the justice system tripping over itself—is most likely to produce a result that’s truly in the public interest?
Before you answer that question, take a moment to consider how far off course BC has drifted from doing anything about reducing its carbon emissions, which are threatening the planet’s life support system.
According to the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, humanity can only emit an additional 460 billion tonnes of carbon and still have a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. How much of that 460 billion tonnes can be emitted in British Columbia? Although per capita emissions in BC are, historically, amongst the worst in the world, let’s just assume that of the remaining carbon budget, we have the same right, per capita, as any other people to emit more carbon. If you do the arithmetic, BC’s remaining carbon budget would be about 299 megatonnes. That would have to last us until we reached the magical state of net-zero emissions, supposedly in 2050. So that 299 megatonnes needs to last another 29 years. Will we be able to keep within our budget? Definitely not.
BC emitted 68.5 megatonnes in 2018 from just the sources for which we are currently counting emissions. This does not include, however, emissions caused by logging roughly 250,000 hectares of forests each year. For 2018 the Province put “forest management” emissions at 237 megatonnes. In 2018, then, BC went through its entire 29-year carbon budget. And it’s very likely going to get worse if we stick with our current destructive use of forests. By the way, 80 percent of that destruction occurs so BC can export forest products to support economic growth in China, Japan and the USA. The USA and China are the planet’s worst emitters. Japan is fifth on that list.
Justice Thompson couldn’t cut through the blah, blah, blah of provincial inaction. He was limited to worrying about the court’s reputation being besmirched by the brutality committed by the RCMP in its BC-government-sanctioned action to crush the people’s rebellion against climate change and biodiversity loss.
These circumstances don’t exactly instil one with confidence that the institutions that are supposed to guard the public interest have a clear idea of what needs to be protected first and foremost. If our life support systems are dead, the court’s reputation won’t matter. What’s desperately needed are more actions like those taken by the forest defenders at Fairy Creek. Anything else is just going to be more blah, blah, blah.
David Broadland is grateful for the selfless efforts of all the people who have visited the blockades and participated in defending the old-growth forests at Fairy Creek and the Argonaut Valley this year.