Adapting Sustainable Forest Management to Climate Change: A Comprehensive Report on Scenarios for Vulnerability Assessment

Submitted by Climate Risk Institute | published 13th Sep 2022 | last updated 27th Sep 2022
Adapting Sustainable Forest Management to Climate Change (2015)


This resource was submitted by the Climate Risk Institute for use by the CanAdapt Climate Change Adaptation Community of Practice. 

This article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

Sustainable forest management (SFM) seeks to “maintain and enhance the long-term health of forest ecosystems for the benefit of all living things while providing environmental, economic, social, and cultural opportunities for present and future generations” (CCFM 2008). However, the world is now being subjected to significant changes in climate that pose a serious threat to both Canadian forests and the attainment of SFM objectives. Further climatic changes are all but inevitable in coming decades, regardless of efforts to mitigate global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), although the precise consequences for Canada’s forests and for SFM remain highly uncertain.

A major concern of researchers and managers is that present-day forests and forest management will need to be adapted to a changing climate, if the supply of forest goods and services is to remain sustainable (Lemprière et al. 2008; Johnston et al. 2010a, 2010b; Williamson et al. 2010). Adapting SFM to account for climate change is likely to be essential if the sustainability objective is to be achieved and maintained “for present and future generations”. Significant challenges remain, however, in identifying appropriate adaptations and deciding where and when they should be implemented. Uncertainty in the timing, location, and magnitude of climate change and its impacts will need to be considered in planning SFM for the future. For example, increased occurrence of fires, insect outbreaks, and mortality related to drought are all expected (e.g., Trenberth et al. 2003), but the need for, and cost of, adaptation measures to address these threats will vary across the country and according to future management objectives.

Scenarios are tools that can be used to account for uncertainty in decision making in a systematic, ordered way. (For example, they can be used to assess sensitivity of the system of interest to plausible levels of change.) Scenarios can be viewed as thought experiments that allow exploration of how future climate may differ from that of the present, leading to alternative impacts on a system of interest, such as a managed forest. Scenarios are therefore often the products of some form of “model”, meaning any representation of ideas about how climate changes may affect the system of interest (i.e., models can be conceptual, qualitative, or quantitative). 

Scenario analysis allows decision makers to consider a range of possible futures and to develop adaptive measures that are more likely to remain effective within that range of possibilities. The effects of multiple uncertainties, including the potential consequences of adaptations, can be explored, enabling the development of strategies and decisions that are more robust in most of the potential outcomes. It is important that scenario analysis be guided by stakeholders with competing long-term visions of what is desired for the future (not all of which may be achievable), to direct the implementation of both short- and long-term adaptation measures (Bizikova et al. 2009). SFM practitioners will also need to be aware of the wider consequences of any planned adaptation and be ready to modify actions if and when necessary (Gray 2012).

Scenarios analysis is an appropriate means of integrating considerations of climate change into long-term planning for SFM. The use of scenarios of future climate and of its impacts, particularly at the local scale (i.e., an area corresponding to a forest management unit or a community and the land base that supports it), is also a key element of assessing the vulnerability of SFM to climate change. Vulnerability assessment has become an established approach to understanding and responding to the potential effects of climate change on a system of interest (e.g., IPCC 2001; Metzger et al. 2005; Smit and Wandel 2006), such as a managed forest (Williamson et al. 2012).

The purpose of this report is to review the topic of scenarios, to identify those that are relevant to SFM, and to examine how they can be used to envision future climate conditions and the responses of socioecological systems, as these systems affect SFM. Supporting information on the availability of scenarios developed for Canada, and other resources, are documented in the appendices. The report also provides guidance on how scenarios can be used in vulnerability assessments and in the development of adaptation strategies for SFM.

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