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Canada underestimating 80 megatonnes of emissions from boreal logging: report

New research finds that by overcounting the carbon storage of intact forests and undercounting emissions from logging, the Government of Canada is vastly underreporting the climate impacts of clearcutting in one of the country’s greatest carbon sinks

The annual carbon pollution from Canada’s logging sector is at least 80 megatonnes higher than what the industry reports, according to new research published on Thursday by Environmental Defence Canada, Nature Canada, Nature Québec and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report, entitled “Missing the Forest: How carbon loopholes for logging hinder Canada’s climate leadership,” identified the undercounted emissions from logging practices in Canada’s boreal forest, which the report notes is “the world’s most carbon-dense terrestrial ecosystem.” 

“While Canada has made leading commitments to a broad portfolio of natural climate solutions, the logging industry continues to clearcut more than 400,000 hectares of the boreal each year — about five NHL hockey rinks every minute — much of this in irreplaceable primary forests, which have not been previously impacted by human disturbance,” the report states.

Eighty megatonnes is equivalent to the annual emissions from all the buildings in Canada, or the annual emissions of 17.4 million passenger vehicles. 

The report’s co-authors, Jennifer Skene and Michael Polanyi, said the federal government has created accounting and regulatory loopholes that are responsible for the massive underestimates of industry’s carbon footprint.

“The Government of Canada has drawn a curtain over the logging industry’s carbon emissions, allowing the sector to escape scrutiny for its substantial climate impact,” Skene, natural climate solutions policy manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said during a press conference Thursday.

The co-authors said Canada takes a “biased approach” in its emissions reporting by, for example, excluding emissions from logging roads or damaged forests but including emissions reductions from undisturbed forests that have never been logged and so, the author’s argue, cannot be legitimately included in the accounting.

Canada has committed to be carbon neutral by 2050, but the authors warn these findings, which have not been peer-reviewed, cast doubt on Canada’s ability to meet its carbon reductions targets — just days before the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP26. 

But they still see room for Canada to be a leader in tracking and reducing emissions.

“Canada should lead a global effort to protect and enhance forest carbon stores,” co-author Polanyi, policy and campaign manager for Nature Canada, said.

“Generations to come rely on [us] accurately accounting and reporting … carbon emissions. It’s a necessary place to start.”

Canada ‘manufacturing a carbon sink’

The more intact a forest is, the more carbon it can naturally store as a carbon sink, which means it absorbs more carbon than it releases. When forests are damaged they release carbon, and act as a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. 

Article 13 of the Paris Agreement requires countries to report on emissions in an annual national inventory report to the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As part of this report, Canada measures emissions from its “managed” forests, which means lands where human interventions take place, according to standards set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the report found Natural Resources Canada has been including primary forests — areas that have never been logged — in its “managed” forest area. 

“They’re basically trying to take credit for the carbon sequestration of the wild primary forest that they have nothing to do with planting or managing,” Ken Wu, executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, told The Narwhal after reading the report.

But Natural Resources Canada only includes primary forests when it will “benefit” its greenhouse gas inventory, the co-authors argue, and excludes from its accounting primary forests that could increase inventory emissions, such as those impacted by fire, insects and disease. 

Canada is “manufacturing” a false carbon sink, Skene said.

While Canada does not include emissions from forests impacted by wildfire, the researchers found Natural Resources Canada will add these areas to the inventory when the forest has reached “commercial maturity,” on average 76 years after a wildfire.

Canada also excludes some emissions entirely from the accounting process, like those from areas cleared for logging roads.

Natural Resources Canada, the federal ministry responsible for tracking forestry emissions, did not provide comment in time for publication. In a 2020 policy note that outlines how the government reports on forestry emissions, the ministry said its model “is internationally recognized and used in many countries around the world to estimate and understand forest emissions and removals.”

The policy note says the ministry collects data from a number of sources, including “statistics on natural disturbances such as wildfire and insect infestations.”

A 2021 study found that globally, a gap of 5.5 billion tons of carbon emissions exists between countries’ reported annual emissions and those calculated by independent assessors, underlining the need for more rigorous and standardized accounting systems.

Kate Lindsay, senior vice-president at the Forest Products Association of Canada, told CBC she is “disappointed [with the report] knowing that the forest carbon accounting in Canada is very highly regarded globally.”

Derek Nighbor, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, told The Narwhal via email “the Canadian forest sector is committed to contributing to Canada’s goal of net-zero by 2050, and forestry is a unique sector that can play a large role in both mitigating climate change, as well as increasing resiliency in Canada’s forests.”

Forests can help mitigate climate change by storing carbon if they are healthy, but if they are impacted by wildfire, insects and disease, they can release more carbon than they store. Because of the impacts of climate change, Canada’s forests have been emitting more carbon than they absorb since 2001.

Canada has opportunity for ‘a leadership role’

The co-authors make a series of recommendations, including making another federal ministry — Environment and Climate Change Canada — responsible for forestry’s carbon accounting.

“Natural Resource Canada’s mandate [is] to support and promote industry,” Polanyi said. Moving the responsibility to Environment and Climate Change Canada would avoid conflicting mandates, he argued.

The authors call on Canada to make improvements to accounting and regulating carbon emissions, and to prioritize Indigenous leadership of forest protection and restoration through the creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.

They also argue forestry should be included in Canada’s carbon pricing framework and added to the federal carbon pricing system regulations, noting that “in failing to put a price on logging’s forest carbon impacts, the Government of Canada is effectively subsidizing one of its largest sources of emissions.”

“We see a real opportunity here for Canada to step out into a leadership role to be changing its own practices,” Skene said.

Wu would like to see similar research done beyond the boreal forest, especially in the coastal forests in British Columbia, which has garnered international attention this year due to the Fairy Creek blockade, where over 1,000 people have been arrested trying to halt logging of some of B.C.’s last old-growth, making it the largest act of civil disobedience in Canada’s history.

Slowing down logging is essential, he said, because “the climate crisis doesn’t have 200 years to wait” for secondary growth to reach its full carbon sequestering potential.

“The best thing we can do is log less and protect a lot more.”

Updated October 28, 2021 at 6:41 p.m. PT: This article was updated to include comment from Derek Nighbor, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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