Climate smart forestry

Sustainable forestry has net climate benefits, say 550 scientists

Logging is part of a managed forest that can have net benefits for climate change | Submitted

While B.C. Forests Minister Katrine Conroy was in Japan this week to reaffirm forestry trade relations with Japanese buyers, Canadian forestry representatives and environmentalists were at the COP27 in Egypt to talk – mostly at odds -- about forestry and climate change. planned to make presentations on the need for more protection of old growth forests in Canada and on biomass as a “false climate solution.”

The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) planned to screen a new documentary, Capturing Carbon, that explains both the risks climate change poses to Canadian forests – increasing wildfires and pests – and the net climate benefits of sustainable forestry.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to COP27, 550 scientists and academics from around the world sent a letter to the European Commission president to underscore the benefits of “climate smart forest management,” including the use of bioenergy from wood waste.

Forestry in Canada – logging, sawmilling, pulp and paper mills, and wood manufacturing – contributes $25 billion to Canada’s GDP annually and employs 185,000 Canadians, according to Natural Resources Canada’s 2021 State of Canada’s Forests report

Of the 362 million hectares of forest in Canada, 756,875 hectares were harvested in 2021 – or 0.21% of Canada’s total forest cover. Deforestation in Canada (the permanent loss of trees) was just 0.01%.

The Japanese put a premium on Canadian wood products – from lumber to wood pellets – partly because of Canada’s sustainable forestry practices, B.C. Minister of Forests Katrine Conroy told BIV News by phone while in Japan.

“They really, really value the quality of our wood, and they talked about the environmental aspects as well,” she said. “They recognize that we have some of the most stringent regulations for environmental sustainability when it comes to how we take care of our forests, as well as how we harvest them.

“They also recognize how valuable wood is when it is in a building, because it keeps sequestering carbon for years and years to come.”

The wood pellet industry in B.C. is one of the few subsectors of B.C. forest industries that has actually grown over the past 20 years, while the number of sawmills and pulp and paper mills have shrunk. Japan is a major market for wood pellets made in B.C., and Conroy said there are opportunities for growing that market.

“The pellet industry here is picking up because they (Japan) want to get off coal,” Conroy said. “There’s definitely potential there for expansion.”

But the pellet industry in B.C. and in Europe is being assailed by environmental groups as a false climate solution. They claim that the industry is resorting more and more to the harvesting of trees to make wood pellets.

That’s simply not true, according to Gary Bull, a University of BC Forestry professor who is among the 550 academics who signed the letter. Bull was part of a recent study that was given access to government and industry databases of wood harvested in B.C., as well as confidential commercial data, and independent third party audits.

“We reviewed the data for virtually every truckload of fibre delivered to each pellet mill in the province, as well as the source of all forest harvesting debris used to produce pellets,” Bull recently wrote.

The study concluded that 85% of the fibre inputs at B.C. pellet mills was sawmill waste, and 15% harvest residuals and low-quality logs that neither sawmills nor pulp mills would buy.

Biomass made from wood waste is considered a carbon neutral alternative to coal, since the regrowth of trees takes up CO2, and when paired with carbon capture and storage, is considered carbon negative.

Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) has been highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group 3 as one of two critical carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies critical to keeping global warning in check, the other being direct air capture.

“The deployment of CDR to counterbalance hard-to-abate residual emissions is unavoidable if net zero CO2 or GHG emissions are to be achieved,” the WG3 says in its sixth assessment summary for policymakers.

But there’s another way to use trees to remove CO2 from the air, environmentalists say: Stop cutting them down and let them grow.

If that sounds a little too obvious and simple, that’s because it is, according to 550 scientists who signed the recent climate smart forest management declaration.

Trees take up CO2 as they grow, but as they reach full maturity they stop growing, reaching a carbon sequestration saturation point.

“Presently, in managed forests annual growth of carbon is higher and maximum wood volumes are the same as under protection,” the scientists say in their letter. “Without harvesting, the forest volumes will saturate. The carbon sink will approach zero, as it is visible in the old growth areas in the Ukraine pristine forests.”

As long as intensive silviculture is practised in forest management, the carbon sequestration of younger working forests can be more productive than mature forests as a carbon sink, Bull said.

“If you’re committed to more intensive management, I can double the carbon stock on that forest,” Bull told BIV News. “The working forest is a better carbon sink in general.”

Some mature forests are more vulnerable to “disturbances,” like pests and fires than others, Bull added. Boreal forests, for example, are susceptible to these disturbances, Bull said, whereas coastal old growth forests are less vulnerable and therefore more stable carbon sinks.

A sustainably managed working forest not only can sequester carbon in wood products, and continue to take up CO2 as trees regrow, forestry can also play a role in mitigating the loss of stored carbon from wildfires being released into the atmosphere, according to experts interviewed in the FPAC documentary, Capturing Carbon.

"We can't afford to have that continue to happen in our atmosphere," said Jack Darney, forestry superintendent for Tolko Industries. "And there is a role  for forestry and harvesting to be able to mitigate some of those effects of these large wildfires."

Salvage operations after a fire or pest infestation can help regenerate forests quicker than if it were simply left to regrow on its own, Darney says in the documentary

"One of the benefits of harvesting those sites is to reset it and get a forest regrowing there much quicker than nature would have done it on its own."