Nature Canada

A Nature Canada Special Report

Missing the Forest:

How Carbon Loopholes for Logging Hinder Canada’s Climate Leadership

Co-authored with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Nature Québec, and Environmental Defence

How Canada is giving the logging industry a free pass on its carbon emissions.

Canada is under-reporting emissions from the forest sector by more than 80 million tonnes per year, an amount greater than the annual carbon footprint of Canada’s building sector and more than 10 percent of Canada’s annual total reported greenhouse gas emissions.

This underreporting is the result of four flaws in Canada’s approach to forest carbon accounting, including:

  • overstating natural carbon removals while not reporting the emissions from wildfires
  • under-measuring emissions associated with industrial logging
  • using an altered baseline for assessing forestry emission reductions over time
  • excluding logging emissions from the carbon pricing system.

Protecting the world’s forests, just like a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, is essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. 

Forests, in addition to their importance in maintaining biodiversity, play an irreplaceable role in global carbon regulation, absorbing one-third of human-caused carbon emissions from the atmosphere annually and storing this carbon long-term in their soil and vegetation. This is why forest protection and restoration are key pillars of international efforts to advance natural climate solutions (i.e., actions that preserve and enhance ecosystems’ role in absorbing and storing carbon).

Preserving forests that have not been significantly disturbed by humans, like parts of our boreal forest, is particularly important. These forests, which are rapidly disappearing, hold unique value for the climate and biodiversity. Once gone, they are irreplaceable.

That’s why it’s critical that we get our forest carbon accounting right. We can’t afford an 80 million tonne hole in our climate plan.

Section 1

What’s At Stake?

The boreal forest holds some of the world’s last stretches of and is a biodiversity hotspot. Known as the world’s most carbon-dense terrestrial ecosystem, it stores twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical forests.

Yet, the logging industry continues to more than 40,000 hectares of the boreal each year (about five NHL hockey rinks every minute), a lot of which is irreplaceable primary forest.

The government of Canada has carved out a unique set of rules for the forestry sector that create dangerous policy gaps in carbon accounting and regulation in the sector. These accounting and regulatory loopholes downplay or write off the industry’s impact on climate and lead Canada to undervalue the protection of primary forests.

Leaving these logging loopholes unaddressed gives the logging industry a free pass for its carbon emissions and puts Canada’s goal of 30x30 at stake.

The Cost of Logging Loopholes

  • Canada ranks third in intact or primary forest landscape loss, behind only Brazil and Russia. 
  • Reported emissions from wood products constitute approximately one-fifth of Canada’s total emissions but do not include the carbon impact of logging sites.  
  • More than 90% of the logging in Canada is in the form of clearcutting, a practice in which the logging operation removes nearly all the trees from a given area.
  • Clearcutting primary forests releases significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, both from produced wood products, disturbed soil, and biomass debris for years to come.
  • The change in forest cover also exposes the soil to increased temperatures and leads to other changes that can impact decomposition and soil microbial communities thereby increasing soil carbon releases. 
  • Later, replanted forest may later absorb significant amounts of carbon but won’t reach the same level of maturity and carbon sequestration as primary forests for centuries.
  • These impacts, compounded with the presence of natural wildfires (which are exacerbated by industrial logging), result in carbon debt that can last for generations.

Section 2

Recommendations

Canada’s commitments on natural climate solutions, and its large forest carbon flows and stores, could position it as a true global leader on forest protection and climate-friendlier logging practices.

However, loopholes in the country’s current forest carbon accounting system make it impossible at present for Canada to fulfill its potential. Below are six recommendations to help Canada stay on track of its climate commitments.

1. Ensure unbiased accounting of logging emissions  

Canada should shrink its definition of “managed forest” and stop counting carbon removals from older trees in primary forest areas so that only truly human-caused carbon emissions and removals are included in the national greenhouse gas inventory.

Canada also needs to fully account for—and report in its inventory—all carbon emissions and removals on managed forest lands that have been logged by including emissions from major wildfires on those lands. Canada should also calculate the contribution of forests towards Canada’s 2030 emissions target the same way as for all other sectors: by comparing net emissions in 2030 with those in 2005. 

2. Improve accuracy of carbon emissions measurements associated with industrial logging through investment in on-site monitoring and more detailed imaging 

The government should commit the necessary resources to testing and improving its forest carbon model through significantly increased on-site monitoring of forest carbon flows. The federal government should also begin measuring and accounting fully for the carbon impacts of long-term loss of forest cover from infrastructure such as logging roads, landings, and seismic lines. 

3. Ensure better governance and oversight of logging’s carbon emissions  

Responsibility for quantifying and accounting for forest-related carbon emissions should be transferred from the Ministry of Natural Resources to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. This will provide better clarity of roles and help support the harmonization of accounting practices with other sectors. 

4. Regulate logging emissions consistently with other key industrial sectors 

Like all other industry sectors with major emissions, forest management activities—including harvested wood products and biomass combustion—should be included in Canada’s carbon pricing framework and added to the federal Output-Based Pricing System.

Pricing net forest carbon emissions and removals would hold the logging industry accountable for its climate impacts and provide incentives to both provincial governments and industry to adopt climate-friendly forest management practices. 

5. Prioritize forest protection and restoration under Indigenous leadership 

Federal and provincial governments should prioritize at-risk, high-carbon, and high-biodiversity areas in the boreal forest for protection as part of Canada’s 30×30 target—including areas currently slated for logging. Forest protection and restoration initiatives should center on Indigenous-led solutions. Strong Indigenous land rights are not only critical to Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty, but are also correlated with better protections for forest carbon and biodiversity. 

6. Provide global climate leadership by setting a new  international standard for forest carbon accounting 

Many of the logging sector loopholes in Canadian policy are also found elsewhere, particularly in other Northern countries at temperate and boreal latitudes. Canada should work with US counterparts and key international leaders to establish new best practices for forest carbon accounting globally.

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