Canada is scrambling to push its managed forests off the climate accounting books as the climate crisis itself transforms the country’s vast resource from a net carbon sink to a carbon source, veteran data-cruncher Barry Saxifrage argues in a new explainer on his Visual Carbon website.
“A major climate crisis is unfolding in Canada’s managed forest lands, as they tip from carbon absorbers to super-emitters,” he writes, citing data from the country’s latest National Inventory Report (NIR). “Put simply, our forests are now dying and being cut down faster than they are growing back.”
Saxifrage opens with a chart that shows the net carbon balance in the country’s forests dating back to 1990, when they absorbed 60 million tonnes more than they emitted. By the middle of that decade, annual figures showed net emissions almost every year, with the total approaching 200 megatonnes in 1995 and hitting 230 Mt in 2017.
“Driving this trend is an unnatural surge in native insect outbreaks and wildfires,” he explains. “Humans are turbocharging both. Our relentlessly high levels of fossil fuel burning are rapidly altering the climate in favour of more insects and infernos. In addition, decades of poor land use practices have produced unfit, vulnerable, monoculture forests.”
Despite the added strain on forest ecosystems, Saxifrage reports that wood harvesting has removed an absorptive capacity for 185 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year since 1990, around 160 in recent years. In 2017, a harvest worth 160 Mt wasn’t nearly offset by new forest growth equivalent to 70 Mt.
“All that extracted forest carbon used to be replaced each year as new growth pulled even more CO2 out of the air,” he writes. “But our faltering forests can’t keep up anymore. Now logging is pushing our forests over the edge from absorbers to emitters. And all the excess logged carbon is accumulating in our atmosphere –just like CO2 from fossil gas, coal, and oil.”
The net difference between emissions and carbon storage makes forestry a smaller net emitter than transportation or oil and gas, but places it ahead of major sectors like buildings, electricity, heavy industry, and agriculture.
“One obvious policy option is to treat excess carbon from forestry like we treat excess carbon from fossil fuels—putting it under the same climate target and levying the same carbon pricing on it,” Saxifrage says. “That would at least provide some incentives and tools to push this new emissions source back down again to safe levels. After all, the climate reacts the same to both.”
Bu instead, “the government has been working to push the carbon bomb exploding in our managed forest off the books. Well…off the current books, anyway.” He cites three changes in carbon accounting rules: ignoring most of it, pushing one-quarter of the harvested wood into future years’ accounting, and setting a weaker target.
“The government’s own data shows that Canada’s managed forests, and the wood taken out of them each year, have become one of our country’s largest climate pollution sources,” Saxifrage concludes. “Logging now extracts vastly more carbon than is growing back—tipping our forests from weak CO2 sinks into massive CO2 emitters. Rather than taking responsibility for our actions that are driving this new threat, the government is trying to push it all off the books through ‘creative’ accounting, generational burden shifting and fake offsets schemes.”
Saxifrage’s Visual Carbon site has a full PDF of his analysis, multiple charts, additional raw data from Environment and Climate Change Canada, and a Q&A.