For years, the Government of Canada has perpetuated myths of the logging industry’s carbon neutrality, echoing and stoking narratives that it’s a peripheral player in driving climate change. The government left the logging sector out of its emissions reduction strategy. It exempted the industry from Canada’s carbon pricing system. It does not report logging’s net emissions in Canada’s annual greenhouse gas inventory. Effectively, Canada has exculpated the logging industry from climate responsibility, treating it as distinct from other sectors.
The problem is that the logging industry—according to the government’s own data—is one of Canada’s greatest climate liabilities.
As a new report and an accompanying technical analysis from NRDC and Nature Canada show, according to Canada’s annual emissions data, the logging industry is a high-emitting sector, responsible for more than 10% of Canada’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Far from being a bit player in driving climate change, its impact is roughly on par with the emissions footprint of tar sands operations.
Each year, the logging industry clearcuts more than 550,000 hectares of forests in Canada, equivalent to six NHL hockey rink-sized areas every minute. These forests are among the most carbon-rich ecosystems in the world and hold some of the last large stretches of primary forests—never-before-logged forests with unparalleled climate value. When these forests are clearcut, it unleashes this previously locked-up carbon to the atmosphere.
Despite the widely acknowledged climate ramifications of clearcutting these forests, Canada has never reported the logging industry’s net emissions in its annual carbon inventory, where it documents the climate impact of all other high-emitting sectors. Instead, it scatters the markers of logging’s climate culpability across a wide array of government materials and buries them beneath broader forest data that makes the forest sector appear to be roughly carbon neutral.
As the analysis details, however, when the logging data is excavated and brought together, it coalesces into a clear picture of logging’s footprint: even accounting for the carbon stored in long-lived wood products and for the carbon absorbed by regrowing forests post-logging, each year the logging industry emits tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or as much carbon as the entire province of Quebec.
Even this staggering figure, because it is based on government data, is likely to be conservative. The government’s carbon accounting methodology excludes key forest and logging dynamics that, if included, would increase the logging industry’s reported emissions. For example, the Government of Canada does not account for “logging scars,” long stretches where, even 20 to 30 years following logging, the forest has failed to grow back. Government data also omits greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, such as logging’s methane emissions, which studies have shown are significant. The government’s inventory also relies on provincially reported logging rates, which recent whistleblower testimony has called into question.
The government’s failure to recognize and address these emissions has left a gaping hole in its climate strategy. Earlier this year, the government released its Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), a strategy to reduce Canada’s emissions to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The logging industry was absent from the plan, meaning Canada has left tens of millions of metric tons of annual net emissions unaccounted for.
The lack of accountability for the logging industry has also had sweeping impacts across Canadian policy more broadly. In obscuring the logging sector’s net emissions, the government has dramatically downplayed the cost of logging in primary forests and undervalued these forests’ protection. It has meant that razing centuries-old forests to burn as biomass or turn into toilet paper is treated as a zero-cost venture.
It has also justified the logging sector’s exemption from key climate regulations, such as Canada’s carbon pricing system. Instead, logging has been placed under an offsets regime that allows tree replanting and avoided logging to “cancel out” emissions from the fossil fuel industry.
This analysis discredits treating the logging industry differently from other high-emitting sectors. Logging is a high-emitting sector in its own right that needs to be regulated and mitigated alongside, not in lieu of, the fossil fuel industry.
Sweeping logging’s climate footprint under the rug also precludes opportunities to incentivize the industry to adopt climate-friendlier practices and, ultimately, hurts the Canadian logging’s prospects in a changing world. As the global marketplace and policymakers hold suppliers to increasingly rigorous sustainability standards, the Canadian logging industry will need to align with these expectations or risk losing its reputation as a sustainable source of forest products.
It's not just the integrity of the Government of Canada’s climate plan that’s at stake—it’s Canada’s global reputation and credibility, particularly as it prepares to hold the Convention on Biological Diversity’s pivotal conference in Montreal in December. The government has sought to establish itself as a champion of natural climate solutions, signing onto the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Last Use last year and calling on countries in the Global South to address their forest impacts. This leadership, however, is contingent on Canada recognizing the cost of its own logging industry and adopting policies to protect the globally vital primary forests within its own borders.
Denial of the fossil fuel industry’s role in driving climate change led to decades of inaction and missed opportunities. Now, Canada is fueling a similar denial for its logging industry. The integrity of Canada’s climate plan depends on a full, accurate, and transparent accounting of all major sectors and a strategy that doesn’t arbitrarily exclude one of Canada’s highest-emissions industries. The Government of Canada may be able to bury logging’s emissions on paper, but the felt reality of its impact won’t be so easily written off.