One analysis suggests that Canada is using questionable methods to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the forest industry, which it says equal those from Alberta’s oil sands in some years.
“Canada gets credit for decarbonizing vast forests that have never been felled as a way to hide emissions,” said Michael Polanyi of Nature Canada, which co-sponsored the report.
The report released Tuesday, also sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, uses federal and methodological data to try to figure out how much carbon is emitted by the Canadian forest sector.
Environment Canada reports direct emissions to nearly all sectors of the economy. But logging is handled by a number called “net co-flow,” which combines natural processes and industrial activity.
Federal government figures indicate that carbon emissions from harvesting a so-called “managed forest” – that is, a forest subject to forest distribution, whether recorded or not – is generally roughly balanced by carbon uptake from regrowth of forests.
Natural Resources Canada has long defended its approach, saying it complies with United Nations guidelines and is used by other countries.
The Canadian Forest Products Association called the report “misleading and harmful”.
But the report says the government’s calculations are skewed.
The government does not attribute carbon from wildfires to industry. It does, however, give industry credit for the carbon absorbed by forest regrowth, even if that forest has not been harvested and human activities have played no role in restoring it.
“It’s like going on a diet that takes credit for the food you don’t eat,” said Jennifer Skin of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The effect of forest fires
The authors attempted to determine the impact of wildfires. They have attempted to isolate emissions directly attributable to industry using government data, methods and assumptions.
They calculated the total amount of carbon stored in the felled trees. From that, they subtracted carbon that will remain sequestered in long-life products, such as building supplies. They also subtract the carbon that trees absorb as they grow back onto the replanted forest masses.
The result is that rather than breaking even, the report concluded that since 2010, forests have released an average of 85 megatonnes of carbon each year. Alberta government figures say the oil sands emits about 70 megatons per year of production.
Federal government documents defend how it calculates emissions. They say that excluding wildfires from emissions from managed forests allows scientists to isolate emissions from human activity.
“Canada [greenhouse gas] Inventories separate forest emissions and removals in man-made forests from emissions and removals due to wildland fires, forest insect infestations and other natural disturbances,” according to a document published in June.
“If such an approach is not used, it will be impossible to assess how forest management activities affect the estimates. This is because natural disturbances will dominate estimates of emissions and removals.”
Carbon emissions from wildfires were calculated and revealed that Canada’s forests are now a carbon source rather than a sink. However, these emissions are not attributed to the industry.
“The government does not include and does not count bushfires, but it takes credit for the regrowth after these bushfires start,” Polanyi said.
Derek Negar, president of the Forest Products Association, said Canada needs new forest policies that take into account growing disturbances from drought, insects and fires – the source of most forest emissions.
“We urgently need constructive solutions, not deliberate disinformation attacks,” he said in a statement.
He said Canada should help forestry companies reduce disruption risks and support forest operations that increase carbon storage in the long term.
More organization is required
Polanyi said the report’s calculations are conservative. They do not address the carbon emitted by trees felled for forest roads, and the carbon emitted by unharvested forest soils after they have been felled or regrowth failed.
“The vast majority of logging in Canada takes place in previously unrecorded forest,” he said.
The difference is important, he said, because Canada cannot achieve its climate change goals unless it has an accurate picture of where it started.
Polanyi said the report’s conclusions reinforce the argument that emissions from forests should be regulated in the same way as those from other industries.
“These emissions should be regulated or included in the output-based pricing system just as other industries are included.”