Clearcutting in Canada’s boreal forest unleashes significant emissions of carbon dioxide once locked up in soil, creating a threat to the global climate crisis that has gone largely unmeasured and unreported, according to a new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s international climate leadership will be tested if he fails 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. Canada’s international climate commitments will be revisited at a United Nations climate meeting that begins next week in Bonn, Germany.
“Clearcutting in Canada’s boreal forest is opening a Pandora’s box of uncounted carbon dioxide emissions that threaten our planet’s climate. It also threatens Indigenous communities and their cultural heritage, and is destroying a unique forest ecosystem that is one of the world’s best tools for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change,” said Josh Axelrod, a policy analyst with NRDC’s Canada Project. “Protecting and rehabilitating one of the world’s last great forests is necessary for the planet and for Canada to maintain its position as a leader in fighting climate change.”
NRDC’s analysis shows a massive amount of the boreal forest’s carbon is released through clearcutting that is currently unaccounted for in Canadian climate modeling and international reporting. An average of one million acres is clearcut in Canada annually, releasing an estimated 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of emissions from 5.5 million vehicles – every year. These uncounted climate impacts of boreal logging are on par with the upstream tar sands production emissions expected if the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline were built.
The boreal forest is a green crown of trees that spans nearly the entire globe just below the Arctic Circle. Stretching over 1 billion acres, the Canadian boreal forest is one of the world’s most important climate regulators and carbon storehouses. Compared to tropical forests, which are estimated to hold more than 50 percent of their carbon in trees and other above-ground biomass, boreal forests hold as little as 5 percent of their carbon in trees and other plants. This means 95 percent of the boreal forest’s stored carbon is “locked up” in its soils, wetlands, and peatlands.
Clearcutting degrades and disturbs the boreal forest’s ability to store carbon, by removing most living trees and damaging forest soils and peatlands in the process. Yet many in the forest industry defend clearcutting methods, taking the extreme position that increased use of harvested wood products is a climate solution. Blanket claims that wood products from “sustainably managed forests are always a carbon sink,” oversimplify the carbon storage issue, but it’s a message that Canada’s federal and provincial governments are increasingly adopting to justify more logging. Huge quantities of trees clearcut from the boreal forest become wood pulp consumed in Canada or to U.S. manufacturers of throw-away products like newsprint, paper, and tissue.
NRDC’s report, “Pandora’s Box: Clearcutting in the Canadian Boreal Unleashes Millions of Tons of Previously Uncounted Carbon Dioxide Emissions” is based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature regarding the climate benefits of the boreal forest. To grasp the implications of missing unaccounted for carbon dioxide emissions, NRDC surveyed data specific to Canada’s boreal forest and created a model to estimate per-acre emissions associated with boreal clearcutting. (The model and its outputs are discussed in NRDC’s white paper, Accounting for Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Clearcut Logging in the Canadian Boreal Forest, which explains and quantifies site specific CO2 emissions caused by clearcut logging disturbances within the boreal forest in Canada.)
NRDC’s report offers a series of recommendations intended to preserve Canada’s boreal forest as a carbon sink, as we seek to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, including;
- Work with Indigenous Peoples to develop forest management practices that keep the forests not only intact, but also healthy;
- Institute “climate-safe forest practices” that minimize disturbances in areas logged; preserve primary forest; and return harvested areas to resilient, long-lived, and complex stands;
- Fill major informational gaps regarding forest regeneration outcomes, greenhouse gas emissions linked to forest harvest, and changes in important ecosystems across Canada;
- Support the study of boreal forest wood product lifecycles and carbon storage potential that accurately account for all inputs possible, including recycling and eventual production of methane in landfills;
- Conduct a comprehensive inventory of carbon in boreal forest soils across Canada and study the impact of industrial activity on this vital carbon store.
Facts about clearcutting in Canada’s boreal forest:
- Since 1996, more than 28 million acres of Canadian boreal forest have been logged. That’s an area more than 23x as big as Grand Canyon National Park and nearly as big as the entire state of Ohio.
- In Canada’s boreal forest, individual clearcuts sometimes approach 25,000 acres in size – equivalent to 18,000 American football fields.
- The boreal forest removes 113.4 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year – equivalent to the annual emissions of 24 million passenger vehicles.
Canada’s Boreal Clearcutting Is a Climate Threat (Blog by Josh Axelrod)
Boreal clearcutting undermines Canada’s climate leadership (Blog by Anthony Swift)
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.