A new analysis suggests Canada is using questionable methods to dramatically underestimate greenhouse gas emissions from the forestry industry, which it says equal those from Alberta’s oilsands in some years.
“Canada is taking credit for carbon removal from vast forests that have never been logged as a way of masking emissions,” said Michael Polanyi, policy and campaign manager at Nature Canada, which co-sponsored the report.
Two reports released Tuesday, the second one sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), use federal data and methodology to attempt to find out how much carbon is emitted by Canada’s forestry sector, The Canadian Press reports.
The lead author of the Nature Canada technical paper was theoretical chemist and veteran climate advocate Matthew Bramley, who died of cancer September 24 at age 55. Both reports are dedicated to his memory.
Environment Canada reports direct emissions for almost all sectors of the economy. But logging is handled through a figure called “combined net flux,” which combines natural processes and industrial activity.
Federal government figures suggest carbon emissions from harvesting the so-called “managed forest”—any forest under a forestry dispensation, whether or not it’s being logged—are almost evenly balanced overall by carbon absorption from forest regrowth.
Natural Resources Canada has long defended its approach, saying it conforms with United Nations guidelines and is used by other countries. As well, the Forest Products Association of Canada called the report “misleading and damaging.”
But the report says the government’s calculations are skewed.
The government doesn’t attribute carbon released by wildfires to industry. However, it does credit industry for carbon absorbed by forest regrowth, even if that forest has never been harvested and human activities play no part in its recovery.
“It’s like a dieter taking credit for food they don’t eat,” said NRDC policy manager Jennifer Skene.
[Disclosure: The Energy Mix publisher Mitchell Beer previously worked as a consultant to NRDC’s Canada Program.]
CP says the Nature Canada and NRDC authors tried to factor out the impact of wildfires and isolate emissions directly attributable to industry using government data, methods, and assumptions.
They calculated the total amount of carbon stored in harvested trees, subtracted carbon that will remain held in long-lived products, like building supplies, and also subtracted carbon absorbed by trees as they regrow on replanted forest blocks.
The result? Instead of roughly breaking even, the report concludes that forestry emissions have averaged about 85 megatonnes of carbon every year since 2010. Alberta government figures say the oilsands emit about 70 megatonnes a year from production.
Federal government documents defend the way Ottawa calculates emissions. They say excluding wildfires from emissions coming from managed forests allows scientists to isolate emissions from human activity.
“Canada’s (greenhouse gas) inventories separate forest emissions and removals in the managed forest due to human activities from emissions and removals due to wildland fire, forest insect outbreaks, and other natural disturbances,” says a document posted in June.
“If such an approach was not used, it would be impossible to assess how forest management activities affect estimates. This is because natural disturbances would dominate emissions and removals estimates.”
Calculations of wildfire emissions show the country’s forests are now a source of carbon rather than a sink. However, the government does not attribute those emissions to industry.
“The government doesn’t include or count wildfires, but then takes credit for regrowth after those wildfires have taken place,” Polanyi told CP.
Derek Nighbor, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said the country needs new forestry policies that take into account growing disturbances from drought, insects, and fire—the source of most forest emissions.
“We urgently need constructive solutions, not deliberately misleading attacks,” he said in a statement.
He said Canada should help forestry companies reduce disturbance risk and support forest operations that maximize long-term carbon storage.
Polanyi said the report’s calculations are conservative. It doesn’t address carbon released from trees cut for forestry roads, carbon released from unharvested forest soils after they’re cut, or failed regrowth.
“The vast majority of logging in Canada is taking place in previously unlogged forest,” he said.
The difference matters, because Canada can’t meet its climate change goals unless it has an accurate picture of where it’s starting from, he added.
Based on research on Northern Ontario “logging scars” by the Wildlands League, Polanyi said intrusions like logging roads could account for at least 13 megatonnes of unacknowledged emissions.
“There’s a key distinction here between the deforestation the government reports and what’s actually happening on the ground,” he told The Energy Mix in a written response to queries. Reported carbon dioxide emissions from forestry are relatively small, about 3.5 million tonnes per year. But “there are a number of forest dynamics that the government doesn’t include in its inventory, including logging scars, where the forest has failed to regrow even 20 to 30 years later. These could potentially be considered de facto deforestation.”
On the other hand, Polanyi said the assessment doesn’t include downstream emissions that occur after trees are harvested, nor does it compare those impacts with the equivalent carbon pollution from oilsands extraction. About 80% of the emissions in a barrel of Canadian crude oil take place after the product is shipped across a border, reaches its destination, and is used as directed.
Skene said the Nature Canada-NRDC analysis still points to the need to accurately report Canada’s forestry emissions.
“For years, industry narratives around logging’s carbon neutrality have dominated government messaging and policy-making, despite the clear science around the climate consequences of logging primary forests, particularly forests as carbon-rich as Canada’s,” she wrote. “Canada’s failure to transparently and accurately report its logging emissions has warped the cost-benefit analyses at the foundation of Canada’s forest policy, downplaying both the value of protecting primary forests and the cost of logging them and helping to drive business-as-usual industry practices.”
Polanyi told CP the report’s conclusions bolster the argument that emissions from forestry should be treated the same as those from other industries. “Those emissions should be regulated or included in the output-based pricing system just as other industries are included.”
The main body of this report was published by The Canadian Press on October. 18, 2022.