Boreal Clearcutting Undermines Canada's Climate Leadership

Coauthored by Mitchell Beer

As the international community prepares to meet at the 23rd United Nations climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, next week, Canada’s position as a global climate leader is in jeopardy. New analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) confirms that clearcutting in Canada’s boreal forest is releasing over 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually—equivalent to the emissions of 5.5 million vehicles. While the attention of the world is elsewhere—on Canada’s tar sands emissions, and on critical forest resources in other parts of the world—the country’s logging companies are steadily fragmenting and degrading the boreal forest, an essential tool in the international fight against climate change. By failing to protect the boreal, Canada is turning one of the world’s last remaining great forests from a carbon sink into a significant source of emissions. NRDC’s findings are alarming, especially since emissions from logging are not acknowledged in the country’s national greenhouse gas inventory, or in its plan to reduce its emissions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s international climate leadership will be tested if he fails to take action to protect the boreal forest, which holds over 300 billion tons of carbon in its soil, trees, and wetlands—the equivalent of 36 years of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. By failing to protect the country’s iconic boreal forest, the Canadian federal government is allowing the degradation of one of the world’s most important reservoirs for accumulating and storing carbon from the atmosphere. Over the last decade, the country has clearcut an average of a million acres of boreal forest per year.

And federal and provincial governments are doing very little to stop them.

The Boreal Forest as a Climate Regulator

When climate conference delegates meet in Bonn November 6-17, many of them will be working with a renewed sense of urgency. Wildfires in California’s wine country and Fort McMurray, Alberta, drought and famine across the Horn of Africa, an epic parade of hurricanes in the Caribbean and Gulf Coast, and sea level rise threatening the survival of small island states show that the effects of climate change are already happening—and getting worse.

Forests figure prominently in most of the potential pathways to minimize the effects of global climate change. Those scenarios often assume countries will expand the area of the globe covered by forests—rather than continuing to cut them down—to increase their capacity to capture and store carbon. As long as forested lands function as carbon sinks, sequestering atmospheric carbon in trees and other vegetation and soils, humanity buys time to get its own greenhouse gas emissions under control. If forests are cut down, that essential ecosystem service is lost, unless and until a new generation of trees can grow, mature, and deliver the same degree of carbon capture—which can take decades.

It’s All in the Timing

Even with the most optimistic, textbook assumptions about the rate and quality of forest regrowth after harvesting—assumptions that often fall short in the real world—logging in Canada’s boreal forest adds up to a significant increase in global emissions, at just the moment when we can least afford them.

In Bonn, one of the main lines of discussion and negotiation will focus on picking up the pace—on “ratcheting up ambition,”—to set humanity on a course for more, faster emission reductions. While the 2015 Paris Agreement was a triumph of international diplomacy, it isn’t enough on its own to stabilize the global climate. So, countries must begin mapping out a process to toughen up their national carbon reduction plans.

How have Canada’s governments and forest industries met the challenge of increased ambition? By continuing to log the boreal forest and claiming that doing so preserves the forest’s carbon in wood products, regardless of whether that product happens to be lumber or toilet paper. As this dubious claim takes hold, we’re hurting a major carbon storehouse at the moment in human history when it’s most urgently needed.

That’s hardly the way for the Trudeau government to deliver on a pan-Canadian climate strategy that it touts as a “collective plan” to “help us transition to a strong, diverse and competitive economy; foster job creation, with new technologies and exports; and provide a healthy environment for our children and grandchildren.”

How Canada Can Do Better

Canada’s provinces have made some important gains in reducing carbon emissions. Quebec has received international acclaim for producing most of its electricity from low-carbon sources and reining in its energy-related carbon footprint. Ontario delivered the biggest single carbon reduction in North American history when it phased out all its coal-fired power stations.

But Quebec and Ontario are also the two provinces responsible for the largest share of Canada’s boreal forest logging. Their inattention to forest carbon undermines the bold progress they’re making, threatening to offset the benefit of carbon emission reductions they’ve achieved elsewhere in their economies. NRDC’s research attributes a significant climate impact to boreal forest logging, the equivalent of the upstream emissions from the notorious Keystone XL pipeline, or from Enbridge’s proposed new Line 3 and Kinder Morgan’s proposed new Trans Mountain pipelines combined. A single year’s worth of clearcutting across Quebec equaled nearly two thirds of the emission reductions that province has promised to make by 2020 and nearly a third of the emissions reductions pledged by Ontario.

The obvious answer is that, with the boreal forest already under stress due to climate change, the provincial and federal governments must step up to protect it, rather than adding another massive stressor in the form of widespread clearcut logging. Along the way, by safeguarding intact forest landscapes that are critical habitat for threatened boreal woodland caribou, Canada can meet its obligations under the federal Species At Risk Act and relieve growing concerns from major companies that are asking tough questions about whether boreal forest practices align with their corporate responsibility values.

Canada’s forest companies and governments can still get it right on boreal forest protection, but there’s no time to lose. In the end, it’s the only way for Trudeau to deliver on the lofty climate leadership goals he’s set for his government, with the whole world watching.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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