The State of the Boreal Forest Harvest
Certain environmental NGOs, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, present what we consider profoundly mistaken information about the forest harvest in Canada. Here is our version of the facts, supported by multiple official sources.
The MEI Dissects Key Sections of the NRDC’s Report on Canadian Forestry
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Nature Canada have released a new report about the Canadian forestry industry. Unfortunately, it is based on flawed methodology and faulty assumptions, and thus misinforms their supporters, the Canadian media, and the general public.
Ignoring Canada’s Record of Sustainable Forest Management
The selective presentation of arguments begins early in the report: “International scientists,’ it states, “including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have increasingly sounded the alarm about the devastating climate ramifications of continuing to destroy primary forests (forests that have never been industrially disturbed).” (Emphasis added.)
Yet the IPCC also recognizes that sustainable forest management can play a key role in mitigating climate change. As summarized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:
“In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit. Carbon storage in long-lived wood products and reductions of emissions from use of wood products to substitute for emissions-intensive materials also contribute to mitigation objectives.”
Moreover, Canadian forests are not being “destroyed.” The annual deforestation rate in Canada is near zero, at 0.01 percent. That’s because harvested areas are regrown. In addition, most deforestation is caused by conversion of land to agriculture, mining, oil and gas development, or urbanization.
The report goes on to state that, “[e]ach year, the logging industry clearcuts more than 550,000 hectares of forest across Canada.” But the fact of the matter is that only 0.21 percent of the Canadian forest is harvested annually. By comparison, 4 percent of forests are impacted by insects each year, and another 0.06 percent by fires. More importantly, 100 percent of harvested areas are regenerated either through tree planting or naturally, as required by Canadian law.
“Over decades,” the report continues, “industrial logging has reduced the average age of Canada’s forests and eroded primary forest areas, decreasing the overall carbon Canada’s forests store—with the atmosphere seeing the difference.”
Yet as Natural Resources Canada explains, Canada’s boreal forests are made up of trees that are “mostly relatively young”:
“Scientists do not consider the boreal forest to be ancient because the forest itself is subject to ongoing natural disturbances that are part of an ecological cycle that renews the forest. Under sustainable forest management, management strategies will often seek to imitate the effects of natural disturbances to help maintain the ecological integrity and health of the forest for the future.”
The report also omits that younger trees absorb carbon as they grow, while older forests are more subject to fires, disease, and insects and emit carbon as they die or decompose.
The central methodological flaw of the report is that it does not include greenhouse gas emissions and removals from the entire managed forest, instead only focusing on recently harvested areas. This quite simply goes against the international reporting guidelines, which Canada follows.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) uses the Carbon Budget Model of the Canadian Forest Sector (CBM-CFS3), an internationally accepted model that was developed by scientists at the Canadian Forest Service three decades ago. It has since been used by many countries to estimate forest emissions and removals. It’s also subject to periodic reviews by teams of international experts.
It is important to remember that the vast majority of forests in Canada (94 percent) are publicly owned and managed by provincial, territorial, and federal governments. Within those publicly owned areas are managed forests, which not only include areas where the industry has been granted a license to harvest, but also areas that are protected for other values and may never be logged.
The CBM-CFS3 guidelines instruct the Canadian government to analyze the effects of forest management as a land management practice. This includes estimating emissions and removals from a whole host of activities in managed forests including forest regrowth after harvesting in years past, slash burning, fire suppression, and insect control.
Natural Resources Canada’s greenhouse gas inventories separate emissions and removals due to human activities from emissions and removals due to natural disturbances like wildfires. In other words, the goal of the inventory report is to present “the emissions and removals that are a direct result of management” and “provide a clear picture of the impacts of human activity over time.”
The Canadian government and other countries that use similar models view sustainable forest management holistically and thoroughly plan for a wide variety of activities to occur in a managed forest area in a given year. Harvesting timber is just a small aspect of overall land use management in Canada’s forests. This is why measuring overall emissions for the entire managed forest provides a much more instructive method for understanding the forests’ climate impact.
The report also complains that the government’s inventory “excludes key forest and logging dynamics essential to a comprehensive emissions calculation. For example, the government does not include the carbon impact of ‘logging scars,’ areas where the forest remains essentially barren even 20 to 30 years following logging.”
This is based on a study from another NGO, Wildlands League, which argues that “logging scars,” or areas where no regrowth has occurred due to the lingering effects of logging roads and other activities, prove that the government is undercounting deforestation and associated carbon emissions.
The Wildlands League study, though, only looks at the remnants of forestry activity in one small area of Ontario from harvesting that occurred 30 years ago. Importantly, the forestry practices that were used three decades ago are now outdated, and current practices have a much lighter footprint. But Wildlands extrapolates its findings in this study to estimate the impact of “logging scars” for Canada’s managed forests in their entirety.
The reality is that Canada has long been recognized globally for its sustainable forest management practices, and currently holds 35 percent of the world’s certified forest area.
The NRDC’s call for stricter regulations based on its flawed analysis will needlessly harm one of Canada’s most critical sectors, which employs over 184,000 Canadians and contributes $25.2 billion to GDP. It would also threaten the jobs of 12,000 Indigenous workers in the forestry industry.
Finally, given that a very small percentage of Canada’s forests are harvested each year, the NRDC’s recommendation to report only emissions from recently harvested areas while ignoring removals from the rest of the managed forests would not inform the public about the forests’ climate impact or contribute to sound forest management policy.
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Some MEI publications and videos related to this theme*
Nos forêts sont très vertes, quoi qu’en disent les lobbys américains (January 6, 2023)
Opinion piece on the state of the forest in Canada.
Our forests are very green, whatever U.S. lobby groups say (December 27, 2022)
Opinion piece on the state of the forest in Canada.
Can we still trust media reports on environmental issues? (December 14, 2022)
Opinion piece on the objectivity and reliability of some prominent Canadian media outlets.
Forest critics lost in the woods on emissions (December 13, 2022)
Opinion piece on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s latest attack on Canada’s forestry industry.
Forestry: A Sector That Keeps Innovating (November 30, 2021)
Economic Note on forestry innovations that have generated substantial environmental and economic benefits for Quebec.
Quebec Forests: Rural Regions Lose Hundreds of Millions of Dollars a Year (October 29, 2020)
Economic Note showing that it is entirely possible to increase the forest harvest all while protecting the environment, to the great benefit of rural regions and of all Quebecers.
How to Make Quebec’s Forestry Sector More Competitive (November 27, 2019)
Economic Note showing that the tendency to centralize forest management and reduce timeframes for harvesting should be reversed.
How Innovation Benefits Forests (September 18, 2018)
Economic Note showing that forestry activity does not threaten the sustainability of our forests.
Quebec’s Forest Regimes: Lessons for a Return to Prosperity (October 25, 2016)
Research Paper showing that the competitiveness of the forestry sector is threatened by the new forest regime.
Are Quebec’s Forests Threatened? (August 14, 2014)
Economic Note showing that contrary to what some environmentalist groups are saying, Quebec’s forests are not threatened.
The Positive Impact of Harvesting the Forest (August 14, 2014)
Short documentary showing that contrary to what some environmentalist groups are saying, Quebec’s forests are not threatened.
The state of Quebec’s forests (October 3, 2013)
Short documentary showing that the alarmist talk about the state of our forests is wrong.
Comment assurer le développement durable de nos forêts? (March 1st, 2002)
Economic Note (in French only) that challenges the alarmist discourse of some ecologists.
*While some of these publications and documentaries were published a few years ago, their basic conclusions and central message remain relevant.