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Quebec’s forest sector: a secret weapon against climate change

August 14, 2020  By Patrick Lavoie

I’ve heard it time and time again: how can cutting trees be good for the environment?

In my 15+ years working at FPInnovations, my role addressing this discourse has been to provide nuance and guidance to help our members and clients make informed decisions. No one likes seeing a forest being cut down, but forests do grow back, and the temporary sting may be a small cost to pay to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help limit climate change impacts.

Long gone are the days where climate change could be set aside as a future environmental problem for the next generation to deal with. For years, each industry has been trying to figure out its role in the face of climate change.

But what is the forest sector’s role? It became evident early on that the forest sector plays a huge part in that story. In fact, it is since 2007 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has acknowledged that there are two major ways forestry can contribute toward climate change mitigation:

  1. Maintaining or increasing how much carbon is stored in forests
  2. Providing a sustained fibre supply.

Yes, harvesting timber from forests can result in a temporary decrease in forest carbon, but what is often overlooked is that a significant portion of the timber carbon harvested is not emitted to the atmosphere, but is in fact stored in products for a period of time that can stretch beyond 70 years. And besides, much of the carbon contained in forest ecosystems (~60 per cent) is actually retained in the soil; very little of it is released during harvesting. Not to mention that products made from timber can also help replace greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive products like steel, concrete and plastics.

These principles made me and my colleagues at FPInnovations want to investigate to what level the forest sector can help curb climate change? At what cost? And will doing so bring socio-economic value to Quebec?

FPInnovations’ knowledge of the full forest industry value chain made it the perfect candidate to lead a project that aimed to answer exactly these questions. Quebec’s Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs was the project’s funding partner. The project was completed in close collaboration with Université Laval, the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) and Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC) over the course of two years. Industry stakeholders as well as Quebec and Canadian experts in forest carbon modeling, forest economics and life cycle assessment all provided valuable input.

Together, we reached a consensus on a scenario acting as our point of reference – in other words, a baseline scenario. We derived four mitigation scenarios from that baseline scenario. Each of the four scenarios was meant to be an ambitious yet attainable set of activities over the ~70 years modeling period (2020-2089) and was compared to the baseline in order to evaluate relative improvement or deterioration of climate change. We basically tried to determine whether the interventions in each of the four scenarios changed the outcome, and to what extent, when compared to the baseline. Results of the project have helped establish short-term and long-term priorities for policies and research on the issue of climate change mitigation.

The four scenarios consisted of different combinations of several interventions: increased forest management (for example, the creation of additional forest areas in uncultivated agricultural and open woodland areas), increased harvesting, increased bioenergy use and increased production and use of long(er)-lived wood products, i.e. products that remain in service typically over 60 years such as construction materials and sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic, for instance.

The results showed that forest carbon losses which are incurred during harvesting are, in most cases, largely offset by emissions reductions stemming from product substitution. The most ambitious scenario translated into an average yearly mitigation of slightly below seven megatonnes (Mt) CO2 equivalent between now and 2030, which is roughly nine per cent of the annual provincial emissions. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of about 340,000 Canadians. The average yearly mitigation increases when we look at a longer-term horizon (~70 years), translating into an average just over 10 Mt CO2 eq./year.

So, back to our original question: what is the role of the forest sector in climate change mitigation?

With sustainable harvesting levels and proper regeneration practices and follow-up, forests are in fact carbon dioxide-sucking (eco)systems, and using wood helps avoid the production of materials with higher carbon footprints. The forest sector’s most prominent contribution came from a scenario that combined two strategies: increased forest management along with increased yield in longer-lived wood products.

The most immediate short-term benefits came mainly from product substitution from longer-lived wood products such as construction products. By definition, “longer-lived wood products” is a relative term. The point is that the service life of fibre needs to be extended. Wood fibre would be used for a longer span of years, thus delaying the moment at which the carbon contained in the fabric of wood fibre gets back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

In the longer term, improved and more intensive forest management was found to increase forest carbon sequestration. In other words, forests absorb more carbon if they are managed and harvested than if they are not. In order to replace a maximum of non-renewable products down the line, we need to increase the intensity of forest management (make sure fibre supply is not the limiting factor), supply mills with the fibre needed to produce wood-based substitutes to steel and concrete for example, and finally develop markets that can accommodate innovative wood products.

So, what’s next?

The next logical research step is identifying the technologies that the forest industry can implement to market alternatives to non-renewable products, as well as assessing the market impacts of these changes in terms of GHG. The forest industry is peculiar in nature; it may be the only industry where more production means lower overall greenhouse gas emissions. Now that we know what to do, it’s time to roll up our sleeves, and together, take charge of making a real difference for our generation and for future generations.

Patrick Lavoie, lead researcher and member of the Groupe de travail sur la fôret et les changements climatiques.

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