Canada Rejects Transparency on Logging’s Climate Toll
Canada has again failed to transparently report on the logging industry's climate impacts, giving the sector a free pass for more than 70 megatonnes of carbon emissions annually, and perpetuating a "climate blind" forest policy framework.
Just weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned about the imperative of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, Canada has once again effectively scrubbed one of its highest emitters—the logging industry—from its books. In its latest greenhouse gas inventory, a report whose raison d’etre is transparency, Canada chose to continue its practice of exempting the logging industry from meaningful scrutiny. In turning a blind eye to the tens of millions of tons of annual emissions from industrial logging, Canada is willfully ignoring what the atmosphere does not and setting itself up for yet another year of policy failure.
Each year, the logging industry in Canada clearcuts more than 1.3 million acres of some of the world’s most carbon-dense forests, exacerbating climate change. Just as burning fossil fuels adds to our already carbon-overrun atmosphere, logging these forests releases vast amounts of emissions that had been locked up in the trees and soil.
These aren’t speculative emissions; in fact, the data on logging’s climate impact is right there in Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory. These net emissions are the product of taking the total carbon in harvested wood and then subtracting any carbon stored in long-lived products and industry-driven forest regeneration (see chart). In 2020, Canada’s logging industry was responsible for more than 70 Mt CO2, constituting more than ten percent of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. Even this staggering figure is almost certainly a very conservative estimate.
The problem is that this data is not just scattered across the inventory, but also buried under problematic forest carbon accounting practices.
Canada’s accounting, in effect, gives the logging industry credit for the forests it does not cut in any given year. Inventories are meant to look purely at anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions in order to help inform mitigation measures actually within countries’ control. In alignment with this, Canada excludes any emissions from major wildfires from its inventory. It also then excludes any removals (carbon sequestration) from forests regrowing following wildfires—up to a point.
The issue comes from the fact that, once those post-fire, regrowing forests reach what Canada deems to be commercial maturity—on average, 76 years of age—it then adds those removals back into the inventory. This is despite the fact that these forests are regrowing entirely naturally, not due to logging industry regeneration efforts.
Under any normal meaning of the word “anthropogenic,” a forest’s age is not a justifiable criterion for designating a forest’s removals as human-caused. The decision to change forest’s designation as “natural” to “anthropogenic” happens entirely on paper–not due to any new or additional human intervention in the forest, and certainly not in the atmosphere. A 76-year-old primary forest’s absorption of carbon is no more creditable to human activity than that of a forest that is 75 years old.
Essentially, Canada is crediting the sector for carbon removals in forests that it has not cut, giving the logging industry an 80 Mt CO2 write-off because the managed forest was not logged to its full extent in any given year.
When you add those removals on top of the actual emissions from logging, it makes the sector appear roughly carbon neutral.
This isn’t just about numbers on a page. False perceptions of logging’s climate neutrality have helped support government and industry messaging that logging is climate benign, or even a climate boon. The myth is helping to justify dangerous pro-logging policies like biomass expansion and the continued degradation of irreplaceable primary forests. It means that Canada’s forest policies are essentially “climate blind,” in which the value to the climate of keeping carbon-rich forests standing—and the cost of cutting them down—has no relevance.
This poses a major problem to a government that has attempted to carve out a reputation as a leader on nature protection and climate.
Yet, after more than a year of calls from scientists and civil society organizations to transparently report logging emissions, neither Natural Resources Canada Minister Jonathan Wilkinson nor Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has accepted ownership of the issue. This leaves a leadership vacuum that threatens to devour Canada’s credibility on the international stage.
The Trudeau government’s main response has been to claim that it is in compliance with IPCC guidelines and therefore is under no obligation to change its practices. Regardless of whether that interpretation is correct—which itself is a debatable conclusion—this response is irrelevant to the substantive concerns about the logical consistency of how Canada has applied these guidelines and the implications it has for Canada’s forest policy.
The government's defense also ignores the fact that the IPCC allows for a plurality of approaches, meaning Canada is at liberty to adopt methodologies that more transparently reflect the logging industry’s emissions. In fact, the only other country that applies similar accounting practices as Canada is Australia. In a welcome move, the government announced as part of its NIR release that it would review its “reference level” approach to setting the logging industry’s 2030 climate targets, creating the pathway for Canada to adopt better practices in the coming years. There is nothing preventing Canada from doing the same to address its problematic accounting practices and transparently report on logging’s emissions.
This isn’t a prescription for what particular steps Canada should take to align its logging industry with a climate-safe future, or a call for protecting certain areas. It is a matter of seeing the data that is already there and crafting policy that reflects it. If Canada is going to have a chance at delivering on the rapid, transformative change the IPCC urges, transparency on emissions is bare minimum requirement, and shouldn’t even be up for debate.