By: The Working Forest Staff
By Derek Nighbor
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. As the world turns to lower carbon products to build greener communities, and as we work to mitigate the risks of worsening pest outbreaks and catastrophic fire patterns, sustainable forest management and the use of Canadian forest products have never been more important.
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, 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.
Insects and fire are significantly impacting forest carbon emissions. In 2018, large-scale natural disturbances accounted for 251 Mt CO2 emissions. Managed forests and the wood products harvested from them were a carbon sink, removing 8 Mt CO2e that same year. Data: Natural Resources Canada – Forest carbon emissions and removals
The opportunity in Canadian forestry is both environmental and economic – and it’s multi-layered. Harvesting older trees locks carbon into long-lived wood products which can be used to displace more fossil fuel-intensive materials like cement. Using leftover residues from sawmills can eliminate waste and make environmentally friendly alternative products like biofuels and bioplastics. 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 regional values into planning and to spur economic activity that powers some 600 communities across the country and fills government coffers with stumpage fees and taxes. So, how can the federal government work to 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 markets for lumber and mass timber will help reduce Canada’s GHG emissions in a significant way – by prioritizing the use of forest products for green procurement and federal infrastructure projects, establishing a National Net-Zero Building Strategy that includes wood, and promoting Canadian forest products to the world – not to mention standing up for Canadian industry and workers in the face of increasing global trade protectionism.
Limberlost Place will be Ontario’s first 10-storey tall-wood, mass-timber, net-zero carbon emissions building. Opening in 2024 at George Brown College’s Waterfront Campus, the Limberlost Place will store over 12,000 metric tonnes of CO2 and avoid nearly 5,000 metric tonnes of GHG emissions. Photo: George Brown College – Limberlost Place
Second, we need the federal government to ensure sustainable forest management is front and centre in its National Adaptation Strategy. This means developing a plan with the provinces to thin fire-prone stands and use prescribed burns to avoid megafires that threaten human life, wildlife, homes, and critical infrastructure. 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. Indigenous leadership and engagement in this effort is essential to its ultimate success in communities across the country.
Third, we need to grow markets for low-grade wood. 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. We must find a new path forward for wood harvested that does not meet the high-quality requirements for Canadian sawmill production. 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. There are new 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.
The New Year presents us with a timely opportunity to use sustainable forest management as a nature-based climate solution to accelerate GHG reductions, deliver on international climate commitments, strengthen prospects for Canadian forestry families, and help build resiliency in our forests and our communities. Canada’s forests and the Canadian forestry know-how gives our country an advantage that is the envy of most countries on the planet.
Let’s use it.
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.