Canada is underestimating carbon emissions from forestry sector, environmental groups allege

A report by environmental groups released Thursday calls for better accounting practices when calculating carbon emissions from forests. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A report by environmental groups released Thursday calls for better accounting practices when calculating carbon emissions from forests. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

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The forestry sector is a significant source of Canada's carbon emissions, but that's not always apparent because of the way we count those emissions, four environmental organizations argue in a new report.

The sector underestimates annual emissions by at least 80 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent, which is about what Canada's buildings sector emits, the report says.

"We think there are major biases and errors in the way that it's currently being reported," said Michael Polanyi, policy and campaign manager for nature-based solutions at Nature Canada, which advocates for protection of endangered species and habitats.

Nature Canada teamed up with Environmental Defence, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nature Quebec to produce the report, released Thursday.

The main issue with Canada's emissions accounting for the forestry sector is that it has an overly broad definition of "managed forests," the report says. Under United Nations guidelines, countries only have to report so-called anthropogenic emissions, those caused by human activities. For the forestry sector, that means only counting emissions in forest areas being used for activities such as logging.

Inayat Singh/CBC
Inayat Singh/CBC

But the report says Canada's emissions accounting includes areas of intact forests not currently being logged, which absorb carbon, while excluding the carbon released when those forests are affected by wildfires, pests or disease.

The national inventory report, which is Canada's official accounting to the UN, explains that managed forests include those used for harvesting as well as those that have undergone fire management or pest control.

Canada says it excludes wildfires from its calculations because the amount of carbon released is huge, and it's difficult to asses what proportion of the emissions is directly attributable to human activity. But the report authors say that is an over-compensation that does not accurately reflect the carbon emissions going into the atmosphere.

Polanyi and his co-authors say international guidelines give countries wide leeway to decide what is considered a managed forest. They recommend narrowing the definition of managed forests and not counting the carbon removed by older trees, as well as counting emissions from logged areas where wildfires have occurred.

Better oversight, more carbon pricing

In 2019, managed forests had net emissions of 4.6 Mt CO2-equivalent, according to the official government figures, a tiny part (0.6 per cent) of Canada's total emissions of 730 Mt CO2-equivalent. But according to the proposed accounting outlined in the report, the sector's emissions should have been around 85 Mt CO2-equivalent, or nearly 10 per cent of Canada's total emissions for that year.

The report raises several areas where its authors would like to see changes, including:

  • Natural Resources Canada, the agency responsible for calculating carbon emissions from the forest sector, is also tasked with promoting and supporting the forestry industry. The report calls for more oversight by outside agencies or the federal environment ministry.

  • Some of the variables used in the models for calculating emissions, such as the rate of tree growth and carbon emissions from wood products, have a high level of uncertainty. Instead of using the middle-of-the range values for these variables, the report argues, the government should base its decisions on worst-case projections.

  • Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press
    Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

    Canada's industrial carbon price does not apply to the burning of wood and other biomass, as energy from wood is seen as being carbon neutral and renewable since the carbon released into the atmosphere is balanced by the carbon absorbed when the biomass grows. The report argues that the emissions from the burning of biomass should be counted separately and a carbon price applied to them.

Forest carbon accounting relies on modelling

Sean Thomas, a professor of forestry and conservation at the University of Toronto, reviewed the report before it was released but had no role in writing it. He said it made a strong case that the forest carbon accounting process in Canada, while adhering to international rules, "is not really giving an accurate picture of the overall emissions of carbon from Canadian forests."

"What the report points out is that the agencies in Canada that are engaged in this carbon accounting process are taking kind of aggressive advantage of some of the loopholes that exist in the framework," he said.

Submitted by Sean Thomas
Submitted by Sean Thomas

Since Canada relies heavily on modelling and not as much on real world measurements to calculate the emissions in this sector, it's important to have data to verify that modelling, he said. Currently, that data comes from a small number of forest monitoring plots, tracts of forest where researchers monitor, he says. The program is run by the provinces and Thomas says data sharing can be uneven.

"A national system that would be publicly available would make an enormous difference to being able to understand what the current state of forest carbon in Canada is and to be able to independently assess these assessments," said Thomas.

In an emailed response sent to CBC News after this story was published, Natural Resources Canada said that its methodology to calculate forest emissions is "entirely consistent with the science-based methodological guidance developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."

"NRCan has been subjecting its work to peer-review in scientific literature for over two decades as part of the development of Canada's system for forest carbon quantification," the statement said.

It also defended its definition of managed forests as being consistent with international guidelines. The model it uses integrates data from millions of tree measurements and remote sensing to best estimate the carbon in Canada's forests, the agency said, although there are still uncertainties in the process.

"We emphasize that, while uncertainties in complex estimates such as national-level forest GHG emissions and removals are high, they are prepared following the guidelines of the IPCC to neither over- nor underestimate emissions and removals," the statement said.

"Thus, uncertainties apply in both directions, and Canada's forests could be either larger or smaller GHG sinks or sources than currently estimated."

Industry highlights potential of wood products

Kate Lindsay, a senior vice-president at the Forest Products Association of Canada who works on the industry's positions on the environment and climate change, also defended Natural Resources Canada's accounting process.

"I'm disappointed [with the report] knowing that the forest carbon accounting in Canada is very highly regarded globally," she said.

"It's been accepted by the International Panel on Climate Change, and it's now been adopted in 25 other countries."

Lindsay stressed that Canada is following guidelines laid down over years of international negotiations, and other countries such as Australia use similar methodologies to calculate forest sector emissions.

Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press
Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

The forest sector is crucial for Canada's path to net zero emissions by 2050, Lindsay says. Not only because the carbon that's stored in wood products but also because of the potential future benefits from replacing carbon-intensive construction materials such as steel and concrete with wood.

Danger of downplaying value of intact forests

Suzanne Simard, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia, and author of a book on forest ecology, Finding the Mother Tree, has spent her career researching the value of forests and the carbon they store. She points out that a large amount of the carbon stored in forests is in the soil and the value of that stored carbon is not fully captured in the models.

Since that carbon is stored in the top layers of the soil, when forests are logged, the carbon stored is released.

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"What we're finding in our research is that we're actually losing about 60 per cent of the carbon in the soil that's in the forest floor," she said.

"Unless we acknowledge that we're losing it, we will never fix the practices that are causing the problem in the first place."

It's a thought echoed by Jennifer Skene, natural climate solutions manager with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Canada project, which collaborated on the report and advocates for the protection of Canada's forests.

WATCH | Report says carbon emissions from forestry sector underestimated:

Skene said that the accounting issues highlighted in the report allow Canada to perpetuate "the fiction of a carbon neutral logging industry" and downplay the cost of failing to protect so-called primary forests, which have not yet been affected by human activity such as logging

The report lays out recommendations to protect those primary forests, by recognizing their value in the carbon accounting process and supporting Indigenous-led forest conservation.

"The Canadian boreal holds more carbon — per acre — than any other terrestrial ecosystem, and that makes it absolutely integral to the fight against climate change," she said.

The report lays out a series of recommendations to improve the way the government measures the sector's environmental impact while recognizing the value of protecting primary forests. That includes changing how forest emissions are reported, putting a price on emissions from logging and supporting Indigenous-led forest conservation.

"If we accurately measure the impact of logging, if we require logging to pay a price on the wood that they log, then that will lead to changes in business practices that are more protective of primary forests, that value the restoration of forests, that shift wood production to higher value products, " Polanyi said.

Submitted by Jennifer Skene
Submitted by Jennifer Skene