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Final Cut: Our role in climate change

February 26, 2016 - Recently, a lot of attention has understandably been paid to the issue of climate change and the role that Canada can play in helping to mitigate its effects. We have seen Minister McKenna play a significant role in Paris and achieve considerable buy-in from provincial leaders.

February 26, 2016  By Paul Whittaker

Here in Alberta, Premier Notley announced an aggressive strategy last month to limit carbon emissions through taxation and transition the province to cleaner energy sources.

There is certainly going to be a period of adjustment for the forestry sector as we work out what the new policies and society’s evolving expectations mean for us.

At the same time, there is room for considerable optimism about the opportunities for the forest sector to play a leading role in addressing climate change. After all, our sector has generations of experience in sustainable resource stewardship. Unlike fossil fuels, forestry resources have proven to be entirely renewable, and that’s because the industry has worked very hard to take care of our forests. We also generate significant amounts of green power through our residuals, and have the potential to generate much more if we can harness those residuals generated during the harvesting process.

The best news of all, though, is that we are the stewards of the greatest climate change defense – our forests.


Canada has 348 million hectares of forests. To put that into perspective, if our forests were a country, they would nose out India to be the seventh largest country in the world. Even better, Canada has the lowest rate of deforestation in the world and the highest number of hectares that are third party certified. So no matter what products we make, consumers can be sure that they are “getting the good stuff,” from both a quality and environmental standpoint.

The link between maintaining healthy forests and addressing the challenge of climate change is well established – as young trees grow, they sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

As a tree grows older, its rate of sequestration slows and the risk of forest fire increases. Forest fires are an integral part of the boreal forest; left to its own devices, many parts of the boreal would burn every 80 to 100 years. Forest fires are also a major contributor to climate change, since all of that sequestered carbon is released back into the atmosphere as the forest burns.

Sustainable forestry offers a unique alternative to this cycle. Take a mature tree and all of its carbon, sequester it in the form of useful products like lumber, and use the residuals (bark, sawdust, etc.) to create electricity. In place of the old tree, plant two new seedlings that begin to grow and sequester more carbon. A virtuous circle!

The statistics certainly back this approach.

A six-storey apartment building that is framed with wood stores the same amount of carbon that 672 cars generate in one year. Use steel or concrete to frame the building and you have a huge expenditure of carbon, with little sequestration.

From an electricity standpoint, replacing traditional fossil fuels with biomass from forestry, agriculture, and other sources makes sense. Not only are residuals from these sectors far less polluting than fossil fuels, they are also completely renewable. The use of bark and sawdust, instead of whole trees, to produce electricity means that zero additional trees are harvested for the generation of electricity.

With additional investments in power generation technologies, much more can be done. As we begin to phase out traditional fossil fuel sources, demand will undoubtedly spur innovation in the biomass generation. This should help to incent further investments in technology that will help our industry generate more electricity and better products.

The result is a win-win: a sustainable future for Canada and increased competitiveness for our greenest industry.

Paul Whittaker is the president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association.



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