Despite persistent claims that Canada has a near-zero deforestation rate, Ontario alone has lost an expanse of productive forest equivalent to 10 times the City of Toronto in the last 30 years, along with 16.5 million tonnes of carbon storage capacity, according to a new report released last week by the Toronto-based Wildlands League.
The research results may just be the tip of the iceberg for a serious deforestation, species conservation, and carbon sequestration problem that extends across Canada, the organization says.
“The study reports for the first time that approximately 21,700 hectares are deforested each year in the boreal forest of Ontario, which is seven times greater than the reported rate of deforestation by forestry for all of Canada,” Wildlands reports, noting that Ontario only accounts for 17% of the logging across Canada.
“The associated carbon cost is nationally significant and already represents 16.5 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent of lost carbon sequestration in the last 30 years. This is how much carbon dioxide would have been taken up by growing trees had roads and landings not displaced them,” the organization adds. “It’s a cost that is projected to grow to 41 Mt C02e by 2030,” more than a year of emissions from all the passenger vehicles in Canada.
“When we extrapolate the findings of this study, an estimated 650,000 hectares of productive forest have been lost due to logging infrastructure over the past 30 years in Ontario alone,” said lead author Trevor Hesselink, the league’s director of policy and research.
A hectare is about the size of a Canadian football field.
“That’s a staggering loss, equivalent to 10 times the area of the City of Toronto or eight times the area of New York City,” added Executive Director Janet Sumner. “We’ve been told over and over that Canada has a near-zero deforestation rate,” but “it wasn’t what we were seeing in the bush. So we took a closer look. And now we know. Canada does indeed have a deforestation problem, and one we need to fix.”
“Most of the wood harvested in Ontario today is still from old growth forests that are being logged for the first time,” the Globe and Mail reports, based on an interview with Hesselink. “The practice is considered sustainable based on the premise that the forests eventually grow back. This notion is also central to Canada’s climate strategy, because the carbon-rich boreal landscape plays a key role in offsetting a portion of the greenhouse gases that are released through industrial and domestic use. It is also crucial for the conservation of threatened species, including woodland caribou that depend on dense, intact forests.”
What those assumptions miss “is an appreciation for how much, and for how long, tree growth is inhibited in places where heavy machinery has compressed the soil, or where the ground is inundated with waste wood from industrial-scale logging,” the Globe adds. Hesselink estimated that 10.2 to 23.7% of reforested areas are covered by treeless patches and scars.
The study used remote sensing, aerial photography, and geospatial analysis, verified by fieldwork, to measure the long-term impact of roads and various other “roadside footprints” of standard forestry practices. “It reveals that in the first three decades after clearcut logging, roads and landings typically remain essentially barren and dominated by grasses and low shrubs,” Wildlands writes in a release. “The main culprit is a deeply wasteful practice resulting from full-tree harvesting (FTH), where the entire tree (trunk, limbs, and branches) is dragged from the stump to the roadside. At roadside, merchantable logs are stripped of branches and tops, undesired species are left behind, and tree waste accumulates in large volumes and on large spaces, inhibiting renewal of the forest.”
Yet “FTH is the dominant approach to clearcut logging in Ontario and is also used in the British Columbia interior, across Alberta and the prairie provinces, and in about 50% of the logging in Quebec, raising additional concerns that the Wildlands League study may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to revealing the true scale of deforestation by forestry in Canada,” the release states. With this year’s UN climate conference under way in Madrid, Wildlands called on Ottawa to tighten up its deforestation monitoring practices and correct its underreporting of the resulting carbon impacts.
“Given these findings, it’s clear to me forestry should no longer be permitted to open up the last remaining intact boreal forests in Canada in a climate crisis,” Sumner said.
In a blog post last week, Anthony Swift, director of the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project, said the Wildlands results place deforestation rates in Ontario nearly 50 times higher than federal officials report.
“Canada’s boreal forest is the world’s largest intact forest and its most carbon dense forest ecosystem—acre for acre storing more carbon than any major ecosystem aside from wetlands,” Swift wrote. “Altogether, Canada’s boreal forest stores nearly twice as much carbon in its vegetation and soils as is in the world’s combined oil reserves. By keeping that carbon in place and safely out of the atmosphere, the forest plays an essential role in maintaining a safe climate.”
In a separate post, NRDC Markets Campaign Manager Shelley Vinyard said the U.S. buyers who account for 80% of Canadian forest product exports are being misled with the promise that Canadian forestry practices are among the most sustainable on the planet.
“Because the Canadian government claims that only 0.02% of Canadian forestry results in deforestation, companies that purchase boreal wood products from Canada have been led to believe that Canadian forestry practices are sustainable and deforestation-free,” she wrote. “This myth further incentivizes companies that have committed not to contribute to deforestation through their supply chains to choose Canada for their wood fibre needs.”
Vinyard called on big purchasers like Procter & Gamble to “exert greater scrutiny and pressure on their supply chain”, and on U.S. consumers of everything from lumber and packaging to newsprint and toilet paper, to “urge them to do so by voting with their dollars and calling on them to act”. [Disclosure: The Energy Mix Publisher Mitchell Beer has worked as a consultant to the NRDC Canada Project.]
The Wildlands report also has serious implications for companies that see biomass-based products as a pillar of a decarbonized energy system, and the bioeconomy as an alternative to continuing reliance on fossil fuels.
“This resource can be used to replace 90% of all the fossil-based products we currently use,” Passmore Group CEO Jeff Passmore writes for the Globe and Mail. “There’s what’s already happening with paper, packaging, renewable fuels, wood in tall buildings, and bioenergy for heat and electricity. But we can also replace hydrocarbons in exciting new fields such as high-performance biocomposites for automobiles, bio-based emulsifiers in paints and cosmetics, bio-based plastics, green chemistry for adhesives and concrete, and bio-jet fuel for aviation.”
He adds that “this sector is already generating billions of dollars of investment globally—just not in Canada.”
Citing rapid and accelerating global shifts of investment away from fossil fuels, Passmore notes that some of the world’s largest reinsurance companies have begun “including bioeconomy projects in their portfolio as a hedging strategy to protect existing assets and win customer trust and market share.” With the industry building that kind of momentum, “it’s long past time for Canadian federal and provincial politicians to realize that the world’s leading financial institutions view a fossil fuel future as untenable, and that it’s time for Canada to move on,” he says. And “Canada, with its abundant natural bio-based resources, is uniquely poised to provide both innovation and investment in a balanced transition to a low-carbon economy.”