The federal government isn’t properly reporting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the logging industry.
As a result, the government is mischaracterizing Canadian forests as a “carbon sink,” when in fact the logging industry is one of Canada’s highest GHG-emitting industrial sectors — responsible for releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than does electricity generation, and almost as much as does exploitation of the oil sands.
That’s the finding of a report, “Logging emissions update,” published this morning. It is authored by Michael Polanyi of Nature Canada and Jennifer Skene of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The authors find Canada’s logging emissions in 2021 were 20 megatonnes higher than those from electricity production. They calculate that industrial logging accounted for only 12 megatonnes less than the emissions from Canada’s oil sands.
The report notes that Canada’s recently updated National Inventory Report (1990-2021), “Greenhouse Gases Sources and Sinks,” ignores recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that to meet climate targets, governments need to take action on all sectors.
How the government counts forestry GHG emissions
To count carbon emissions, we need to know three things: how much carbon is stored in forests, how much carbon is released into the atmosphere through logging, and how much atmospheric carbon is returned to the forests in the form of growing trees.
The report says the government confuses the issue by how it considers forest fires in the equation.
On the one hand, for its GHG reporting, the government doesn’t count the carbon released in forest fires — 287 megatonnes in 2021 — because forest fires are considered “out of control of human activity,” while the GHG reporting is meant to count human-caused GHG emissions.
Fair enough. But for the purposes of GHG reporting, the government does count the carbon stored by the regrowth of trees after a forest fire, “even though the tree growth creating this sink involves no more human intervention than the wildfires whose emissions were excluded,” notes the report. This amounted to 79 megatonnes in 2021.
That 79 megatonnes was then credited against all the emissions of the logging industry, falsely portraying the entire industrial logging sector as a carbon sink.
Polanyi and Skene write that forests as a “carbon sink” is often cited in messaging about the impact of industrial logging, creating “the misleading impression that logging in Canada is carbon-neutral or a net carbon sink.”
This kind of message is in stark contrast to the authors’ findings.
How the report counts forestry GHG emissions
By putting together data scattered across government sources, Polanyi and Skene calculate the sector is a net emitter and anything but a carbon sink.
They cut through the obfuscation by considering three variables:
1. The carbon in harvested wood — that is, simply, how much carbon would be released into the atmosphere if all the wood the industry harvests was immediately burned.
2. Net carbon in wood products — but some of the wood harvested isn’t burned immediately. It ends up as timber used in housing, or as furniture, or other such uses. So this number is subtracted from #1.
3. Carbon released from or stored in forest — after a forest is logged, for a period it continues to emit carbon from the ground and as logging debris decays, but then it again starts storing carbon as new trees grow.
Variable 1 is a positive number, but variables 2 and 3 are negative numbers. Polanyi and Skene add the three together, and write:
We conclude that net GHG [greenhouse gas emissions] from logging in 2021 were 73 Mt [megatonnes], 11% of Canada’s total 2021 GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. [bolding in original]
Further, they say, their estimates are “conservative” ones, which do not include the industry’s use of fossil fuels, notably in its vehicles and pulp and paper mills.
The report concludes that “Canada’s portrayal of logging as a carbon sink results from a biased treatment of emissions and removals from natural disturbances,” because the government does not count emissions from wildfires, although it does claim credit for tree growth after the fires.
Allowing the logging industry to ‘freely pollute’
Polanyi and Skene also conclude that “The portrayal of logging as carbon neutral is leading to counterproductive policy decisions.” They argue that:
By failing to accurately and transparently report the GHG emissions from industrial logging, Canada is allowing one sector of the economy to freely pollute the atmosphere, thereby increasing the burden of emissions reductions on other sectors and externalizing costs to future generations. The lack of clear and accurate reporting of logging emissions is also distorting climate policy-making, as officials currently lack the data around industrial’s logging impact required to advance science-driven, effective solutions. Finally, this lack of transparent reporting is hindering the necessary transition of the logging industry to a low-carbon, climate-safe sector that can compete in a marketplace that increasingly demands sustainable practices and products.
Finally, the authors call on the federal government to “fix the logging gap in its climate plan in 2023.” They write that Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada have said they plan to undertake a review of the country’s “forest carbon accounting” to include human-caused emissions in the forest sector in the government’s 2024 National Inventory Report.
According to the report, “by transparently and accurately reporting logging-related emissions … Canada can fill a major gap in its climate plan,” and put in place more effective policies to reduce emissions caused by industrial logging.
In an email to the Halifax Examiner, Polanyi explains why the government has failed to transparently report emissions from industrial logging, and why he thinks it should do so:
Government officials say they are following international practices by reporting overall carbon flux from managed forests in their National Inventory Report, rather than separating out emissions from logging. However, there is nothing preventing Canada from clearly and separately reporting emissions from logging, for example in 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan reports, just as it does for all other economic sectors. While estimating emissions and removals from logging is complex, the government already does this, and it has the data it needs to calculate net logging emissions (data we used in our report).
Polanyi adds, “The bigger problem is that there has been a lack of public scrutiny on logging emissions, and there is an apparent lack of political will to hold the logging industry accountable for its emissions.”
Canada’s Environment Commissioner equally critical
Polanyi also points out that the new report echoes the findings of a recent audit from Canada’s Environment Commissioner, Jerry deMarco.
On April 20, 2023, deMarco found that “Natural Resources Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada did not provide a clear and complete picture of the effects of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from forests.” He continued:
For example, published reports did not provide sufficient information on how logging or changes in forest management affected Canada’s emissions. Reporting on forests’ contribution to Canada’s emission reduction target was also inconsistent, as it was included in some reporting but not in all. This makes it difficult for decision makers to use the information to guide policy decisions and for Canadians to hold government to account.
There is no solution to climate change and terrestrial biodiversity loss that does not include forests.
The Examiner asked Polanyi why he thinks the new Nature Canada and NRDC report is important. His reply:
This report is important because it debunks industry and government claims that the mass clearcutting of carbon-rich forests is somehow a climate solution. Instead, it shows that Canada’s climate plan has a massive hole in it, which won’t be filled until the federal government finally agrees to clearly report – and take action to reduce – the massive carbon pollution associated with industrial logging.
Canadians care deeply about forests,” he adds. “One of the best things they can do protect them is to urge the government to finally hold logging companies accountable for the climate impacts of the degradation and destruction of Canada’s irreplaceable old-growth and intact forests.”