Canada’s carbon counting conundrum

Carbon counting conundrum

Canada’s new Natural Resources and Environment ministers, Jonathan Wilkinson and Steve Guilbeault, will barely have a chance to crack open their new portfolio briefings before they may have to wrestle over the knotty issue of how to count carbon emissions from forestry.

Environmental groups in Canada plan to make it an issue in the lead-up to COP26 conference.

A new report out today by a consortium of environmental groups claims Canada is “hiding” 80 million tonnes worth of greenhouse gas emissions in the way it does it carbon accounting for forestry.

Essentially, Wilkinson is being asked to reach into the bottom drawer of his desk at NRCan and hand Guilbeault a fist full of carbon.

Despite his environmental roots, even Guilbeault – a former Greenpeace activist -- may be hesitant to add that much carbon onto Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory, because it would make it that much more difficult to achieve a 40% reduction in just nine years, as per Canada's new commitments.

In a report called Missing the Forest: How Carbon Loopholes for Logging Hinder Canada’s Leadership, the Environmental Defence Canada, Nature Canada, Nature Québec, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) say Canada is playing a shell game with forestry emissions. They also call on the Canadian government to apply carbon pricing to the forestry sector.

The report points out that Environment Canada is responsible for producing Canada’s GHG inventory, which at last count put the country's emissions at 730 million tonnes (MT) of CO2 equivalent (CO2e).

But it’s NRCan that provides the accounting for forestry, and the way it’s done artificially under-reports Canada’s true emissions, according to the report.

The way Canada does its accounting for forestry is “manufacturing an artificial carbon sink,” said Jennifer Skene, natural climate solutions policy manager for NRDC.

“NRCan excludes areas recently impacted by major wildfires but adds them back into the inventory when the forest has reached 'commercial maturity' —on average, after 76 years,” the report notes.

“This means that in primary forest areas, NRCan is excluding the main source of emissions (major wildfires) but retaining a large portion of removals (those by older trees). The result is a vastly misleading portrait of Canada’s forests, which artificially inflates the 'managed' forest’s carbon removals by about 80 Mt CO2 per year.

“The 2019 inventory showed Canada’s managed forests to be a net annual carbon source of 5 Mt CO2, when a more accurate assessment would place net annual forest emissions around 85 Mt CO2 per year.”

The report focuses largely on the boreal forests of Ontario and Quebec. B.C. is barely mentioned, despite the ongoing debate over old growth logging here.

Emissions and sinks from land use are troublesome, from a carbon accounting standpoint. Forests and forestry can both produce CO2 and methane, but also sequester carbon. How much they produce or sequester can vary wildly from year to year.

A few bad forest fire seasons, like B.C. has had in recent years, or an insect infestation, can turn a carbon sink into a carbon source. When the trees grow back, they slowly become a carbon sink again.

The actual amount of GHGs that forests either produce or absorb is hard to physically measure, so a lot of modelling has to be done.

“The NRCan model currently does not account for the long-term loss of trees associated with certain types of forest infrastructure including most logging roads, landings, and seismic lines for oil and gas exploration,” the report notes.

The report also takes a swipe at bio-energy made from wood waste or whole trees.

“Biomass energy, which is derived from burning plants such as trees, is not a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels, even though industry often claims it is carbon-neutral,” the report states.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) might not agree with that assessment. Bio-energy is recommended by the IPCC’s Working Group 3 as a mitigation pathway for reducing emissions in power generation, when it supplants fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. Because trees regrow, and take up CO2, biomass energy is considered carbon neutral.

Asked if Canada’s carbon accounting for forestry differs from other major forestry nations, like Brazil, the U.S., Russia and Sweden, Skene said Russia sometimes also fails to properly account for wildfires.

“The way Canada is currently doing it is not in compliance with UNFCCC’s (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) methods,” Skene said.

“There are systemic issues globally. We’re seeing very similar issues happening in Russia. They’ve had very significant wildfires in Siberia that are causing massive emissions, and yet Russia is adopting similar practices of selectively picking which forests to include in the inventory to cover up its emissions.”

But it appears that it’s not just Russia and Canada that uses the kind of accounting that Canada does, according to the report.

“Many of the logging sector loopholes in Canadian policy are also found elsewhere, particularly in other Northern countries at temperate and boreal latitudes," the report notes.

Skene said Canada should work with the Biden administration in the U.S. to come up with some mutually agreed upon new accounting regime for forestry.

Werner Kurz, senior research scientist for NRCan and Canada's Pacific Forestry Centre, and eight-time contributor to IPCC assessments, said the way Canada reports forestry emissions is compliant with IPCC guidelines for national GHG inventories.

He said the report argues Canada should not include primary forests that will never be harvested in its “managed forests” classification. Managed forests include those that are working forests (i.e harvested), parks and reserves, and areas subject to fire suppression.

“In fact, our definition of managed forests is compliant with the guidelines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which govern the rules in which greenhouse gas inventories are to be developed,” Kurz said.

“It is not that we somehow arbitrarily chose an extra large version of the managed forest in order to get credits or debits. We are (IPCC) compliant. That argument, I think, is not supported by the science.”

He also takes issue with the argument that Canada does not properly report emissions from harvested wood products. When timber is turned into products like lumber, the carbon is considered to be sequestered, and therefore not counted as an immediate emission.

The report suggests Canada is over-estimating how long the carbon remains sequestered in wood products.

“The allegation that we are pushing emissions down to future generations by not reporting everything that is harvested today is simply incorrect,” Kurz said.

“In fact, if we did not have the science today that a mass timber building is a better use of wood than, say, bio-energy because it does retain the carbon and it substitutes steel and concrete, we wouldn’t be able to encourage policies that encourage better and responsible use of wood.”

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