Study Shows Boreal Deforestation Is Far Higher than Reported

In findings that have significant implications for Canada's boreal forest and the climate, a new study finds that deforestation rates in Ontario are nearly fifty times higher than reported by government officials.

An in-depth analysis of logging operations throughout northern Ontario has revealed that industrial logging is leading to the deforestation of much larger portions of Canada’s boreal forest than reported by government officials. In its Boreal Logging Scars report, the Wildlands League conducted detailed field examinations of more than two dozen clearcuts across nearly ten million acres in Ontario’s boreal forest, showing that the deforested footprint of industrial logging—including logging roads, pits and landings—has converted over 1.6 million acres of Ontario’s intact boreal forest into a scarred, barren landscape over the last three decades. These findings firmly rebut claims by federal and provincial officials that Canada has a ‘near zero deforestation’ rate and add to a growing body of research highlighting the severe cost that industrial logging is having on Canada’s boreal forest, biodiversity and the global climate.  

Canada’s boreal forest is the world’s largest intact forest and its most carbon dense forest ecosystem—acre for acre storing more carbon than any major ecosystem aside from wetlands. Altogether Canada’s boreal forest stores nearly twice as much carbon in its vegetation and soils as is in the world’s combined oil reserves. By keeping that carbon in place and safely out of the atmosphere, the forest plays an essential role in maintaining a safe climate.

Unfortunately, each year industrial logging operations clearcut approximately one million acres of intact forest every year, which has led the country to consistently rank with Brazil and Russia as one of the top three worst offenders for intact forest loss. In NRDC’s Pandora’s Box report, we showed that even in the best of circumstances—when complete forest recovery is assumed—every year logging in Canada’s boreal forest results in 26 million metric tons of uncounted carbon emissions associated with soil emissions and lost sequestration capacity.

However, the Boreal Logging Scars report paints a much more disturbing picture—showing that an average of 14% of the footprint of these industrial logging operations remains barren and deforested in areas that had been logged more than thirty years ago. In Ontario alone, this means that 53,600 acres is deforested each year, nearly fifty times more than the 1,190 acres estimated by the province. In fact, these findings show that Ontario’s deforestation rate alone is seven times greater than the rate reported for all for Canada. Given that the province only accounts for 17% of the country’s logging, these findings suggest that Canada’s deforestation problem is even greater than identified by the research in Ontario. By 2030, this unaccounted for deforestation in Ontario alone is on track to release more than 40 million metric tons of additional carbon emissions, more than a year of emissions from Canada's passenger vehicles. 

The practice of ignoring the emissions associated with its industrial activities in intact forests must end. One of the best ways of protecting forests is to follow the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, who have safely stewarded their forest homelands for millennia. Time and again, reports have shown that where Indigenous rights to their land are strong, both the climate and biodiversity are better protected. Companies need to do their part, too. Those like Procter and Gamble, which continue to rely on intact boreal forests for fiber to produce throwaway products like Charmin toilet paper need to shift to climate friendly, sustainable alternatives.  

As the international community meets in Madrid to discuss its plans for limiting climate change to 1.5C, this report should be a clarion call for Canada to take measures to assess and address the impact that is logging industry is having on the global climate. We must not only transform our energy systems, but also how we use our forests. 

Credit: Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

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