If you collected the 80 million tonnes of carbon emissions that come from buildings in Canada each year, you’d have the same amount of greenhouse gases the country underreported in its forestry sector in 2019.
The numbers come from a new report, Missing the Forest: How carbon loopholes for logging hinder Canada’s climate leadership, put out by Environmental Defence Canada, Nature Canada, Nature Québec, and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). It found what Michael Polanyi of Nature Canada called “a biased approach to counting and reporting forest sector carbon.”
Underreporting emissions by 80 million tonnes is significant, said Alice-Anne Simard, the executive director of Nature Québec, who notes forests around the world absorb one-third of human-caused emissions each year by storing carbon in their soil and flora.
Canada's boreal has a huge role to play in that — spruce, fir, pine, and tamarack trees line the 1.3 billion acre area, storing 186 billion tonnes of carbon, or 27 years' worth, of the world’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel consumption.
However, when trees die, that carbon is released back into the air. It’s why Canada’s managed forest, which takes up a portion of the boreal forest, has actually emitted more carbon than it has absorbed since 2001. Cutting down forests, especially old-growth, releases millions of tonnes of GHG emissions, said Simard.
The report outlines a few ways this underreporting is happening, such as “using an unbalanced, biased accounting approach that ignores emissions from wildfires but claims credit for the CO2 captured by older trees.”
A new report from @naturecanada @nrdc @naturequebec and @envirodefence has found Canada is underreporting emissions from the forestry sector by more than 80 million tonnes a year.
That makes the logging industry look like it’s carbon-neutral when it really isn’t, explained Simard.
Currently, Canada doesn’t count emissions from wildfires, even though in the province of British Columbia alone wildfires are now burning 10 times more than in the 1990s. If you couple that underreporting with the country taking credit for CO2 captured by older trees, it paints an unfair picture, said Simard, who noted many of these trees are not managed by the forestry sector.
It’s reminiscent of net-zero pledges from fossil fuel and tech companies, who say their offsets from planting trees and other initiatives make up for their emissions, said Simard.
“You cannot take credit from carbon that is being absorbed by trees if you do not manage them. They’re just trees that are naturally growing — that they have not planted,” she said.
Other ways the report says Canada is underreporting emissions include “failing to measure and report emissions related to logging roads and seismic lines” and by “exempting the logging industry’s emissions from carbon pricing regulations on other sectors.”
“There's a price on pollution ... in Canada on the combustion of fossil fuels, but there's no price put on the emissions produced by the logging industry,” said Simard.
“There are all these emissions that come from cutting down trees, cutting down forests that we think should also be included in the regulation, that should have a price. Because after all, the atmosphere does not distinguish between carbon emissions coming from fossil fuels and emissions coming from logging.”
Canada's National Observer reached out to NRCan on Friday afternoon for a statement on the findings but didn't immediately receive a response.
The report comes as Canada joins world leaders in Scotland for COP26.
The conference — also known as COP, short for Conference of the Parties — has brought the world together since 1995 to hammer out agreements to reduce global warming. The talks gather policymakers, scientists, environmental activists, climate experts, and news media from the 197 member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to set and work towards global climate change goals. This year, COP26 takes place at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12.
With Steven Guilbeault taking over as Canada's environment minister ahead of the conference, Simard said the report is especially timely. At the conference, leftover sections of the Paris Agreement will be finalized, so all eyes are on how Canada approaches those negotiations.
“(At COP26), there’s going to be a discussion about what we count when compensating for emissions, and how we can really obtain a carbon-neutral world using trees, but without all these loopholes and exceptions,” she said.
NDP MP Lauren Collins, who is the party’s critic for the environment and climate change, wrote a public letter to Guilbeault after seeing the report, co-signed by fellow NDP MP Richard Cannings, urging him to consider its recommendations.
“The implications of underreported emissions of that magnitude for Canada’s ability to meet our greenhouse gas emissions targets are serious and concerning,” reads the letter.
“Counting carbon is complex in the forest sector. But it is essential that we have an accurate accounting of forest emissions and sequestration if Canada is going to meet its climate change goals.”
The report's recommendations include Canada counting forestry emissions the authors say are now left out, such as those from wildfires. Also vital is making sure those solutions are Indigenous-led and centred, and that more funding goes towards Indigenous communities for forest management.
Ultimately, Simard said the importance of forests in Canada — and the solutions needed — cannot be undermined.
“Canada’s forests are essential to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and catastrophic species loss,” she said.
“The world is looking to Canada for leadership, but first we need to address the fundamental flaws in our approach to forest carbon.”