Forests are intrinsic to Canadian life. We know that with the great power of Canada’s forest resources, comes an even greater duty for sustainable management and responsibility. While we may follow Russia and Brazil as the third-largest forested country in the world – Canada has an important competitive edge that puts us above all others.
Today, by virtue of Canada’s commitments to human rights, family-supporting wages and benefits for workers, and responsible forest management and sustainability, we stand number one in the world with 36% of the planet’s independently audited and certified forests.
This is one of the many reasons customers of wood, pulp, paper, and wood-based bioproducts from around the world are increasingly looking to Canada. In the next few years, we have an opportunity to turn this into a post-pandemic advantage and need the federal government’s leadership to help us enable the possible.
As the world turns to lower carbon products to build greener homes, businesses, and communities, and as we work to mitigate the risks of worsening pest outbreaks and more catastrophic fire patterns, sustainable forest management and the use of Canadian forest products has never been more important.
By capturing carbon, Canada’s forests play a critical role in our fight against climate change. And the products we make coming out of them are equally important for climate action.
In Canada’s boreal forest, younger trees absorb carbon faster than older trees do. As our forests age, they gradually lose their carbon-storing abilities and face a growing risk of drought, disease, insect infestation, and fire. In the process, they become increasingly likely to release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, turning our trees from climate change fighting assets into liabilities.
Historically, Canada’s forests were a net sink that absorbed more carbon than they released. But in the face of worsening natural disturbances over the past two decades, the balance has shifted, and Canada’s forests have become an overall net source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Insects and fire have emerged as among the biggest problems for Canada’s carbon story.
The opportunity in Canadian forestry is both environmental and economic – and it’s multi-layered. Harvesting trees when they are older locks carbon into long-lived wood products, which can be used to displace more fossil fuel intensive and polluting materials like cement. Using leftover wood chips and bark from sawmills can be used to eliminate waste and make environmentally friendly alternative products like biofuels and bioplastics for the marketplace. Renewing forests by replanting and supporting regeneration restarts the carbon storing cycle; and actively managing forests supports biodiversity and helps mitigate the risks of pest and fire outbreaks. All of this can be taken further by working with Indigenous and local communities to incorporate local values into planning to create much-needed economic activity to help power some 600 communities across the country and fill government coffers with stumpage fees and taxes.
These are just a few of the solutions that Canadian forestry can bring to our environment and the economy. So, how can the federal government work with Canadian forestry workers to help us address worsening climate-induced forest disturbance while realizing significant GHG reductions?
First, we must provide more Canadian wood and wood-based products to Canada and the world. One cubic metre of wood stores approximately one tonne of CO2. In 2019, Canada produced approximately 70 million cubic metres of lumber and board. That is 70 million tonnes of CO2 locked away every year, most of it for decades or centuries.
Improved domestic and international markets for lumber and mass timber, such as cross laminated timber and glued laminated timber, will help reduce Canada’s GHG emissions in a significant way. The federal government can accelerate this by prioritizing the use of made in Canada forest products for green procurement and federal infrastructure projects, establishing a National Net-Zero Building Strategy that includes carbon-storing wood products, and promoting Canadian made forest products to the world – not to mention standing up for Canadian industry and workers in the face of increasing global trade protectionism, especially with our neighbours to the south who are being awfully difficult of late.
Second, we need the federal government to ensure sustainable forest management is front and centre in its National Adaptation Strategy to help make Canada a global leader in Climate Smart Forestry. This means developing a plan with the provinces to thin fire-prone stands and use prescribed burns to avoid megafires that scorch both trees and organic soil and threaten human life, wildlife, homes, and critical infrastructure. Indigenous leadership and engagement in this effort is essential to its ultimate success in communities across the country.
Where pest infestations occur, we must move more quickly to contain outbreaks and the fire risks that often follow. We can also restore forest lands that have low productivity or poor biodiversity by thinning and removing deteriorating trees to provide the light and space needed to grow larger trees and more resilient forests.
The overarching goal of Climate Smart Forestry is to maximize forest productivity, stored carbon, and support biodiversity in the forest over time. While these activities will not yield instant results, they have the potential to reduce GHG emissions relative to baseline by 100-200 Mt CO2 per year by 2050.
Third, we need to grow markets for low-grade wood. Some of the wood harvested for Climate Smart Forestry will not meet the high-quality requirements for Canadian sawmill production. Historically, there was significant demand for low-grade timber and residues from lumber milling for pulp and paper production, but with digitization and a challenging investment environment, we have seen decline in this demand in many parts of the country. We must find a new path forward for these materials and Canada’s emerging forest bioeconomy holds incredible promise – biofuels, bioplastics, and bio-adhesives like lignin, to name a few.
Fourth, with the federal government’s support, we can further reduce GHG emissions at Canada’s pulp and paper mills. The Canadian forest sector was an early adopter of new technologies and processes to reduce GHG emissions on production sites. Since the early 1990s, GHG emissions are down by nearly 70% making Canada’s mills among the greenest in the world. We can do even more. It’s now a case of what got us here, will not get us there. There are game-changing opportunities to move many of these mills to net-zero carbon in the next few years. Programs like the Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) and the Net-Zero Accelerator Fund need to be revisited and more robust to help us get there.
As we enter 2022, we are reminded that Canada’s forests, manufacturing facilities, forest products, and Canadian forestry know-how give our country an advantage that is the envy of most countries on the planet. Let’s use it.
The New Year presents us with a timely opportunity to use sustainable forest management as a nature-based climate solution to accelerate GHG reductions in the built environment and at Canadian mills, deliver on our international climate commitments, strengthen prospects for Canadian forestry families and communities, and help build resiliency in our forests and keep communities safer from fire.
Derek Nighbor is the President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada – representing the forest products sector which operates in over 600 Canadian communities, providing 225,000 direct jobs, and over 600,000 indirect jobs across the country.