Forest critics lost in the woods on emissions

For many years now, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has published official-looking reports attacking the Canadian logging industry. With these studies, it hopes to get federal regulators to adopt a new emissions calculation method, one that would paint a darker picture of Canada’s forestry industry than the facts warrant.

We shouldn’t take everything at face value when a deep-pocketed U.S.-based NGO puts out a report aimed at influencing Canadian domestic policy in one of our key industries. We should instead have a hard look at both the data and methodology used to support the positions put forward, as well as the motives behind them. Unfortunately, the NRDC seems to have willing partners in some Canadian news outlets, where reporters have been content to simply repeat its claims without investigating them.

In an effort to set the record straight, our team at the Montreal Economic Institute undertook this missing critical analysis of the NRDC’s latest attack on Canada’s forestry industry. What we found were assumptions with little basis in fact that are at odds with the standards used by both regulators and area experts around the globe.

In its latest report, the NRDC teams up with Nature Canada to call on Ottawa to limit its carbon emissions and removals data only to recently harvested areas. Using this methodology, the NRDC calculates that forestry emitted a whopping 75 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2020. The inevitable conclusion is that forestry is harmful and should be curtailed.

But this quite literally misses the forest for the trees.

Canada’s methods for calculating greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories are based on extensive peer-reviewed research and are widely endorsed by the scientific community. The federal government’s model was developed by scientists at the Canadian Forest Service three decades ago and has since been used by many countries to estimate emissions and removals.

The government’s guidelines instruct regulators to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the effects of Canada’s managed forests, 94 per cent of which are publicly owned. That includes estimating GHG emissions and removals from a whole host of activities within those areas, including forest regrowth after harvesting, slash burning, fire suppression and insect control.

This more accurate and comprehensive overview reveals that Canada’s managed forests are not net emitters of carbon but rather are a net carbon sink, taking 6.5 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent out of the atmosphere in 2020. That’s a far cry from the NRDC’s quasi-apocalyptic claim of 75 megatonnes emitted.

The NRDC and Nature Canada would like you to believe the government’s accounting favours industry, but the stated goal of the inventory report is the entirely reasonable one of presenting “the emissions and removals that are a direct result of management” and providing “a clear picture of the impacts of human activity over time.”

To NRDC and Nature Canada completely untouched forests are the conservation ideal. But a new Natural Resources Canada study of our national parks finds that many such forests are in fact net carbon emitters. That’s because older forests are more susceptible to fires, disease and insects, which lead to carbon emissions as trees die or decompose. It’s also why organizations like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognize the “key role” sustainable forest management plays in mitigating climate change.

In contrast, the NRDC’s idiosyncratic approach paints a misleading picture of forestry emissions in order to encourage harmful regulations on an economic sector that employs over 184,000 Canadians and contributes $25.2 billion to our country’s GDP. Such misguided regulations would also threaten the livelihood of 12,000 Indigenous workers in the forestry industry.

The reality is that Canada’s forests are in very good health. We have a near-zero deforestation rate, recent research shows we’re regaining forests, and we currently boast 35 per cent of the world’s certified forest area. Independent experts have endorsed Canada’s sustainable forest-management practices. The authors of a 2020 study concluded that while other nations are only developing such approaches, Canada already has a comprehensive legal framework “with the federal, provincial, and local level policies and legislation in place to promote sustainable forest management.”

The NRDC and its allies discount or simply ignore these key facts, which tell a very different — and much more optimistic — story about Canada’s forests. Canadian voters and lawmakers need to understand that the steps they’ve taken to protect our forests are working. It’s no surprise when militant environmental groups paint a dire picture so they can attack the Canadian forestry sector. But Canadian journalists covering this beat have a professional obligation to approach such claims with skepticism instead of uncritically parroting them.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.

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