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Opinion: Canada needs to embrace forestry’s powerful climate change solutions


April 22, 2021
By Steve Colombo

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Steve Columbo. Photo supplied.

As we celebrate Earth Day, options for reducing climate change will be the focus of many discussions, with much of the attention on how we can use less fossil fuel. However, an important part of the discussion should be about our forests, their contribution to climate change mitigation and how a healthy forest industry is an essential element of a national emissions reduction strategy.

Canada’s large and diverse forests mitigate climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and converting it into wood. Many wood products lock stored carbon away for decades and can replace materials with a heavier carbon footprint. When harvested sites regrow, this creates an ever-growing stockpile of carbon in forests and in products that we use in our daily lives. In addition, where forest residues from harvesting or mill operations are burned to produce energy, fossil fuels are replaced, providing additional climate benefits, even though the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

Canada has gone to great lengths to evaluate the role of forest management (including harvesting and forest renewal) on forest carbon. Two questions that have been asked about the relationship between forestry and forest carbon are: 1) Is harvesting causing Canada’s forests to be a source of carbon emissions? And 2) Are wood products a source of carbon emissions?

1. Is harvesting causing Canada’s forests to be a source of carbon emissions?

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The federal government assesses the effects of harvesting on forest carbon by reporting separately on the areas of forest management (with harvesting) and areas of natural disturbance. This is done to ensure transparency about the effects of forest management and to meet international commitments for reporting national greenhouse gas emissions.

Forest management is much more than just cutting trees; it is also about protecting habitat, planting trees and promoting natural regeneration to renew harvested forests. Despite harvesting, which happens on just a fraction of the total managed forest, the net result is still about 140 to 150 million tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere every year for much of the past decade.

Meanwhile, the past decade has seen other areas of managed forest affected by wildfire and, before that, the mountain pine beetle, with released carbon averaging about 170 million tonnes of CO2 per year. As climate change continues, natural disturbances will intensify, threatening communities and reducing forest harvesting, causing ripple effects throughout the economy, and reducing forestry’s contributions to climate change mitigation.

2. Are wood products a source of carbon emissions?

Carbon locked in wood products helps to mitigate climate change. While over time carbon in wood products is released to the atmosphere, this is part of a biogenic cycle where forests regrow and reabsorb the carbon in wood products.

Most of the carbon in wood products is very slowly released, remaining stored as items are repurposed or recycled. Even if eventually landfilled, decomposition is slow and much of the carbon in wood products remains stored for many decades. It is also worth noting that forestry reduces emissions from fossil fuels when wood waste is combusted to produce energy, or when it replaces more emissions-intensive materials such as cement.

Moving forward

Climate change will challenge Canada’s forest industry in the coming decades by increasing natural disturbances and altering environmental conditions. The forest sector must continue to adapt forest management practices while continuing to reduce carbon emissions throughout the supply chain (e.g. mills and transport) to maximize the industry’s contributions to Canada’s carbon reduction targets.

A healthy forest industry is an important part of a national emissions reduction strategy, as forests provide wood products that store carbon and displace the use of products having higher embodied emissions. Provincial forestry agencies, the federal government, and industry and community partners must work together to adapt forests to climate change, especially through reforestation and other measures to create forests that are more resilient to climate change and will continue to reduce climate change.

Steve Colombo is a consultant on environmental issues related to forests, climate change and forest management. He has more than 35 years of experience as a research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, where he led and contributed to research concerning forest carbon, adaptation to climate change, and regeneration of boreal forests. He earned a Ph.D in forestry from the University of Toronto and has published more than 120 technical and scientific papers and two books.