By Ken White
Canadian forests are at a critical crossroads. Wood product markets are red-hot, but our forests are in a fragile state from wildfires, insect damage, and climate change. Strong forest management is needed for this precious resource’s sustainability.
Canadian forests are no longer a net carbon sink. For the past few years, CO2e emissions have been significantly greater than carbon absorptions.
Despite its fragile state, the Canadian forest sector continues to generate thousands of jobs and billions of revenues. These “cash” and job benefits include:
- About 185,000 people work in the forest sector (2020), including approximately 12,000 Indigenous people (2016).
- The forest sector contributes about $20.6 billion to Canada’s real gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 (based on 2012 dollars).
- The value of Canadian forest product exports is about $33 billion (2020).
- The forest sector generates about $1.9 billion in revenue for provincial and territorial governments in 2018.
Our forests, however, may have reached a point where this level of exploitation may not be able to continue without causing serious damage to forest ecosystems and the environment.
What are these threats and what must governments do to create a more optimal forest carbon management regime?
The Role of Forests in Meeting Net-Zero by 2050
Historically, Canada’s forests have been a significant carbon sink where more carbon was absorbed than emitted. The situation is now being reversed. Canada’s forests are now releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than what is accumulating in any given year.
Natural Resources Canada in its 2020 State of Forests Report notes, “From 2002 to 2018, Canada’s managed forests emitted carbon each year. The three highest emitting years were 2015 (225 Mt CO2e), 2017 (208 Mt CO2e) and 2018 (243 Mt CO2e).”
A multitude of factors contributes to this shift. The annual total area burned by wildfires is increasing substantially. Unprecedented insect outbreaks are occurring, and annual harvest rates recently have been growing in response to economic demand.
From 2002 to 2018 net carbon emissions grew on average by 8.1 percent annually. The area logged, actually declined by 1.2 percent since 2002. The carbon emissions to hectares ratio are strongly going the wrong way.
The Situation is Getting Worse
Exceptionally high prices for wood products and fiber are encouraging higher levels of logging, especially in British Columbia’s old-growth forests that are hundreds of years old.
Scientists at Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Forest Service (CFS) predict that wildfires are likely to double by the end of the century, which will accelerate the large carbon emissions already occurring. Increasing levels of drought are expected to exacerbate the problem.
As our winters are becoming warmer, more insect outbreaks are expected in all of Canada’s forests, not just in the Pacific Northwest.
Warmer temperatures may also enhance forest decomposition rates. Northern regions of Canada are warming faster than in the southern parts of the country. The rising temperature is melting the permafrost, releasing methane from frozen soils, and initiating the decomposition of previously frozen organic carbon. The abundant frozen methane hydrates in the tundra are melting, releasing even more greenhouse gases.
“Researchers at CFS predict that if this trend continues, the forest areas annually affected by wildfires may double in much of the country by the end of the century.
More emissions will lead to accelerated climate change, which in turn will enhance the conditions that create more carbon-releasing disturbances.
The recent red-hot market and high timber prices have added to the pressures on our fragile forests.
Canada’s carbon reduction targets are tied directly to large emitters signing off on lower carbon intensity ratios and through a major use of offsets which mostly involve planting trees. Our forests must absorb more carbon than it emits.
Current logging practices and past insect and wildfire damage may make achieving our net-zero carbon reduction goals impossible, unless our forests are given a moderate break-in logging, especially for old-growth trees that are hundreds of years old.
Federal or Provincial Jurisdiction?
The sustainability and management of Canadian forests are a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments. The federal government through Natural Resources Canada (Canadian Forest Service) and Environment Canada has the responsibility to promote the sustainable development and responsible use of Canada’s forests and to preserve and enhance the quality of the natural environment.
Canada’s 10 provinces and 3 territories have jurisdiction over 90% of the country’s forests. Each provincial and territorial government develops and enforces legislation, regulations and policies related to forests.
Provincial governments are responsible for the amount of timber harvested (allowable cut), establishing the rules for leasing and managing crown lands, approving forest management plans and monitoring and enforcement of forest practices.
The Supreme Court of Canada on March 25, 2021, ruled that the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act is constitutional. They noted that global warming causes harm beyond provincial boundaries and that it is a matter of national concern under the “peace, order and good government” clause of the Constitution.
When the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has jurisdiction over carbon taxes, the same argument may apply to the jurisdiction and management of forests involving the allowable cut and potentially restricting logging when the sustainability of the forests is at risk.
Canada is committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act was tabled in November 2020 to establish a legally binding process to achieve that goal.
The carbon cycle of our forests is important for achieving these net-zero goals by 2050. Forest stores and releases carbon in a cycle of growth, decay, disturbance, and renewal. Our forests help maintain Earth’s carbon balance.
In making its decision on the constitutionality of the federal carbon tax legislation, the Supreme Court of Canada established three steps or criteria that must be met in deciding whether or not a given issue normally operating under provincial jurisdiction could be overridden by the federal Parliament. These steps include:
- The first step is whether the matter is of sufficient concern to Canada as a whole to warrant consideration for federal jurisdiction.
- The second step requires that a matter have a singleness, distinctiveness and indivisibility that clearly distinguishes it from matters of provincial concern.
- At the third and final step of the national concern analysis, Canada must show that the proposed matter has a scale of impact on provincial jurisdiction that is reconcilable with the fundamental distribution of legislative power under the Constitution. The purpose of the scale of impact analysis is to protect against unjustified intrusions on provincial autonomy and prevent federal overreach.
Regarding step one, the role of forest management practices in meeting climate change net-zero targets is of paramount importance.
The role of forests as a carbon sink by absorbing more carbon than it emits and for healthy forests to take full advantage of offset agreements with large industrial emitters likely meets the test for step two.
Yes, carbon management is a concern for the provinces and as long as best practices are being followed, there is no need for the federal government to impose its powers. However, Parliament may have a legislative role if best practices are not being followed. British Columbia allowing old-growth logging could be a case in point.
The provinces during the pandemic are understandingly concerned with jobs and revenues, especially during the current period of strong housing markets where timber is in short supply and expensive. However, just like the carbon tax example, minimum thresholds for forest carbon management may be needed. A possible new role for carbon forest management as a last resort by the federal Parliament could be the best approach.
Providing the provinces adhere to responsible forest carbon management, there will be no need for the federal Parliament to intervene. But when the provinces fail to do so, the federal government may need to exercise oversight powers.
Who should be ultimately responsible for carbon forest management? Should it continue to be the provinces or a shared role involving federal oversight?
Based on the carbon tax Supreme Court decision, forest carbon management could involve a stronger federal role, especially if the provinces put short-term profits ahead of medium-and longer-term environmental needs.
Returning to the Historical Carbon Sink Paradigm
As discussed earlier, financial wealth in the form of revenues, jobs and international trade is substantial. Canada, however, has no hope in meeting its net-zero targets until our forests become net carbon sinks again. Returning to this historical paradigm unfortunately may cost many jobs and revenues.
Difficult decisions lie ahead.