The Log Con: What’s Really Going On In Canada’s Forests

Canada calls this a healthy forest.

Canada has given us all whiplash. On Monday, June 17, it took the globally important step of declaring a climate emergency. But before the ink could even dry on the headlines, the very next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed how seriously he took this climate emergency by approving one of the biggest climate mistakes Canada could make—the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion.

For many, Canada’s quick about-face felt like a sudden betrayal, completely out of character for this green leader. But to those who have kept a close eye on Canada’s environmental record, Trudeau’s approval of the Trans Mountain project is consistent in its betrayal of professed environmental commitments. The hard truth is Trans Mountain is symptomatic of a much bigger problem: few countries have done as impressive a job of coating their environmentally destructive practices in a green veneer as Canada has. And it’s not just tar sands; Canada’s history of two-faced environmental policies goes far beyond any one pipeline, reflected in the millions of acres of clearcut forests stretching from British Columbia to Newfoundland & Labrador.

Forestry in Canada carries as strong a mythos as coal mining in Appalachia—and for good reason. Canada, in its early days, was a country built in part on logs and wood chips, on “taming” the vast evergreen forests that blanketed the country (and were already the home of thousands of Indigenous Nations). But it’s no longer about small businesses barely eking out a living cutting down trees or founding homesteads. We’re talking large, multinational corporations coming in and ravaging large swaths of boreal forest at a rate of seven NHL hockey rink-sized areas every minute, much of it to feed demand in the United States for products like Charmin toilet paper, 2x4’s at Home Depot, and pizza boxes. Between 1996 and 2015, companies in the Canadian boreal forest logged an area the size of Ohio. That doesn’t even count the loss in the temperate rainforests of British Columbia. In fact, Canada has the third-highest intact forest loss in the world, behind only Russia and Brazil.

All this logging has taken a devastating toll on species like the boreal caribou and pine marten, hundreds of Indigenous communities, and the global climate. And, while many logging industry webpages will tell you otherwise, the forest does not just grow back. Even where it does return, the forest is not the same. It can take hundreds of years for forests to regain their former biodiversity and absorb the carbon it once held, meaning the toll of disposable products like toilet paper lasts far longer than the lifespan of the person who used it once and threw it away. 

For all the logging industry's impacts, Canada isn’t adequately reining it in. Canada’s main federal species protection law, the Species at Risk Act (SARA) delegates most authority to the provinces and territories, which own and regulate the logging tenures. As a result, they are largely toeing industry's line, failing to implement policies like the boreal caribou range protection thresholds the federal government called for nearly seven years ago. Ontario even has its own Trump-like figure in Premier Doug Ford, who has been as big a threat to Ontario’s environmental protections as Trump is to the U.S.’s. Although the provincial governments cede the forest to industry, the federal government has failed to exercise the limited power it does have to step in to protect critical habitat. In the nearly 20-year history of SARA, the federal government has intervened to safeguard unprotected critical habitat only twice.

Meanwhile, on the climate front, Canada’s failure on forest and species protection creates a carbon footprint far beyond just tar sands mining and pipelines. The boreal forest is a massive carbon storehouse, holding at least 12 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon stores. When the forest is logged, the carbon trapped in forest soils gets released into the atmosphere. But Canada isn’t required by United Nations standards to adequately account for these emissions, so it doesn’t. Nor does it consider the emissions from the forest products it produces (particularly throwaway ones) when they inevitably end up in a landfill and biodegrade. Each year, clearcutting in the Canadian boreal releases carbon equivalent to 12 percent of the emissions Canada agreed to cut annually by 2030 under the Paris Agreement

At the root of the problem is a massive misinformation campaign driven by industry trade associations that have made an art out of drastically downplaying logging’s impacts on species and ecosystems and falsely pitting environmental protections against jobs and the economy. One scientific paper dubbed this “manufactured uncertainty,” whereby an industry seeks to either deny a problem exists or at least obfuscate its role in driving it. We saw it too with the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry. Troublingly, the Canadian government has helped normalize this propaganda, with government agencies like Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) readily adopting the industry’s talking points—like the pernicious myth that the forest just grows back.

All this misinformation means Canada can continue to portray itself as an environmental leader while its intact forests diminish at an alarming rate. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Trudeau says, is a good thing in the long run because it will generate tax revenues to fund clean energy projects, even though the evidence says we have to get off fossil fuels now and it will be many years before the pipeline is profitable. Logging, the Canadian government says, is barely happening, and where it is it’s probably good for the climate, even though any evidence of this is tenuous and applies to only very narrow circumstances.

Yes, other countries are just as bad, if not worse. The United States is responsible for the highest historic greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and long ago lost much of its remaining intact forest. But Canada gets a free pass in a way few other countries do. When companies buy forest products from Canada, many of them do so with a clear conscience, unaware of the dire cost to the boreal forest and the global climate.

I want Canada to be the leader we all think it is, especially while the U.S. government abdicates any kind of moral or environmental leadership. As a steward of one of the last great forests left on earth, Canada could finally claim the green laurels the international community already bestowed on it–but it needs to earn them first.