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Canada's logging emissions on par with Alberta oil sands, says report

A new report finds logging in Canada produced a net 75 megatonnes of carbon emissions in 2020, more than the emissions from the country's electricity output and on par with its largest oil-producing region.
Nahmint Valley logging
A cedar tree downed in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni.

A scathing new report analyzing Canada’s overall emissions from logging has found the industry released 75 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020 — on par with the annual output from the Alberta oil sands. 

That means that while logging accounted for over 10 per cent of the country’s total emissions that year, none of it was counted, according to the report jointly produced by Nature Canada and the Natural Resources Defence Council.

By comparison, the operation of Canada’s oil patch produced 81 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2020.

“We think there’s one last high-emitting sector in the Canadian economy that the government is ignoring,” said Nature Canada’s Michael Polanyi, who produced a series of policy recommendations based on the report’s findings.

“And we believe that that’s the logging sector.”

In a statement to Glacier Media, Minister of Natural Resources press secretary Keean Nembhard said the Canadian government “adheres to international guidance and practice” when reporting greenhouse gas emissions.

Nembhard said the way the ministry quantifies emissions from forests is consistent with United Nations reporting guidelines.  

“Every year, Canada’s reports are reviewed by international experts, and none of those reviews have expressed the concerns in this report,” said Nembhard. 

Forest 'climate impacts are being ignored' 

The Nature Canada-led report builds on research Polanyi helped author last fall, which found logging operations clearcut an estimated five NHL hockey rinks every minute in Canada — a rate of destruction so fast that only Brazil and Russia are losing their forests faster.

Graham Saul, executive director of Nature Canada and co-author of the latest technical report, said the government often portrays the logging industry as a “carbon-neutral sector.”

“The reality is that logging is a high-emissions sector whose climate impacts are being ignored,” he said in a written statement. 

Matthew Bramley, former director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, led the production of the technical report, but died weeks before it was made public after a battle with cancer.

In his last investigation, Bramley, along with Saul, criticized the federal government’s annual emissions reporting for using “confusing or misleading terms,” and for not including logging emissions in its overall tally.

The Nature Canada experts aren't the only ones skeptical of the federal government's commitment to forests. In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last spring, 90 scientists “strongly recommended” the Government of Canada make protecting forests a key pillar in its fight against climate change.

The federal government has made repeated promises to bolster the country's forests. During the 2019 election campaign, Trudeau pledged to plant two billion trees by 2030. In June 2022, the Ministry of Natural Resources said it planted 29 million trees the previous year and was on track to achieve its two-billion tree target.

Meanwhile, the logging industry's net emissions have gone down 38 per cent since 2005, according to the Nature Canada-NRDC report.

Between 2019 and 2020, however, those emissions increased by more than four per cent, and remain 33 per cent higher than the carbon equivalent emissions released by Canada’s entire electricity sector.

“Right now, the government is letting the logging industry continue to emit vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and it has no policies to incentivize a more sustainable low-carbon approach to logging,” said Polanyi. 

“It’s missing a huge opportunity to reduce emissions.”

Estimate of logging emissions 'deliberately conservative'

The Government of Canada reports emissions on almost every heavy-emitting sector of the country's economy — from transportation and electricity generation, to the production of oil and gas. Those numbers are all tallied in a greenhouse gas inventory report released annually with a two-year delay, meaning 2020 is the last year data is currently available.

But emissions from logging have never been clearly stated. To fill the information gap, Bramley and Saul based their conclusions on government data scattered across two public databases. The authors say they supplemented that information by requesting “missing numbers” from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

From those numbers, the authors were able to estimate the total carbon removed from Canadian forests every year going back to 2005.

In 2020, that total amounted to 142 megatonnes of carbon equivalent emissions.

They then subtracted the amount of atmospheric carbon sequestered by saplings planted by logging companies — 49 megatonnes in 2020; and the 18 megatonnes of carbon equivalent emissions from wood destined for long-lived products like building materials.

Describing their calculation as “deliberately conservative,” the report excluded the more permanent forms of deforestation, like logging roads and landings that aren’t replanted and grow back slowly, if ever. They also didn’t count the logging industry’s burning of fossil fuels, including in pulp and paper mills. 

What was counted: emissions produced from the short-lived forestry products, such as those burned as wood pellets or in some other industrial application. 

Lack of emissions data 'greenwashing' biofuels

Polanyi explained that many companies are looking to plant trees as a way to offset their emissions. But the whole paradigm falls apart when the forestry industry itself continues to produce huge volumes of emissions, he said.

“Our concern is that [the federal] government's forestry policy is based on an assumption that forestry emissions are minimal. We think that’s leading to poor policy decisions,” said Polanyi.

Those poor decisions include excluding wood burning from output-based carbon pricing, noted the report.

In Canada, large emitters are required to pay a carbon price for burning fuels that produce greenhouse gas emissions, fuels like natural gas, oil or propane.

But when it comes to burning wood, Polanyi says the unwritten assumption is that trees are harvested in a carbon-neutral way and forests are renewable “so these companies shouldn’t have to pay.” 

“What we’re saying is that that’s not true,” he said.

In other words, acknowledged Polanyi, the reporting gap has enabled the greenwashing of a biofuel industry built on the idea that harvesting wood fuels is done sustainably.

A call for transparency, plan to reduce logging emissions

In addition to paying for the cost of carbon pollution, the two organizations are calling on the federal government to clearly report emissions from logging, including hidden emissions left out of the report.

From there, Polanyi says the federal government needs to put in place a clear action plan to reduce emissions from logging just like other high-emitting sectors. 

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change is responsible for reporting emissions in all sectors except forestry. Those emissions are overseen by the Ministry of Natural Resources, or NRCan.

As Polanyi put it, NRCan is responsible for both promoting and regulating the forestry industry.

“We’re trying to give the government the benefit of the doubt,” he said, pointing to what he says is at the least a perceived conflict of interest.

In August, Polanyi said Nature Canada and the NRDC presented a draft of the report to the two ministries. He said neither ministry has challenged the report’s numbers but they also haven’t made any commitments to change the current emissions reporting regime.

Nembhard told Glacier Media the federal government will continue conversations with Nature Canada as it works with experts to improve its emissions reporting. 

For Polanyi, those conversations couldn't come soon enough.

“Right now, Canada is ignoring a high-emitting sector,” he said. “We’re by no means saying logging has to stop. But for there to be a competitive sector for the long term, they need to take climate change seriously.”

“Millions of species on this planet depend on Canada’s globally significant forests.”