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OPINION: Forestry sector has a role in fighting climate change

Wood is not something to use and throw away or burn. It is a flow of wealth produced by our forests and a legacy we leave our children.
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University / director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

A study by the Ontario Forestry Research Institute describes Ontario’s forestry sector as “the managed forests AND the harvested wood products (HWP) originating from these forests.” Forestry isn’t just trees and the companies that harvest and process trees. According to this definition, our forestry sector includes all the houses built from northern wood in Toronto. And in Mississippi, if there are any. And in China. It includes wooden bowls and wooden tables, but not pellets, pulp, or paper.

The question the researchers were trying to answer using this definition is whether our forests are any good at carbon capture and sequestration. In other words, can this Northern Ontario resource industry contribute to the fight against climate change?

There is no doubt that there is a huge stock of carbon caught up in Northern Ontario trees and soils. The trouble is that mature forests give off about as much CO2 as they capture. Trees die and rot. Forests burn. Left alone, the forests make no contribution to the fight against climate change.

Harvested wood products do store carbon, however. Using the new definition, Ontario’s forestry sector increases global carbon stocks by 4.5 million tonnes per year. That is more than Iceland’s total fossil fuel emissions.

A house built with wood will usually stand at 80 years or more. Wooden picture frames can stay in use for centuries. As long as we don’t let the wood product burn or rot, it is storing carbon. My newspapers, on the other hand, go into the recycling box in less than a week. 

Paper is probably the most successful product at being recycled. In the end, though, most ends up rotting in landfills and producing methane in less than three years. As a greenhouse gas, methane is 80 times as bad CO2.

Pellets are just as bad. They are literally designed to be burned as quickly as possible. The economics of the pellet industry work better the faster pellets are burned. 

It is true that studies show the pellets cut emissions if they replace coal, but natural gas does even better, is cheaper, and certainly cleaner. 

Pelletizing our forest makes a very marginal contribution, and at best a short-term, stopgap contribution. And in purely economic terms, in the long run it is a silly idea to convert trees to energy on any large scale: energy is just about the cheapest commodity there is. 

The Ontario Forest Research Institute scientists, Chen, Ter-Mikaelian, Ng, and Colombo, concluded that: “Over the long term, harvesting sustainably managed forests is better than protecting forest from harvesting, as long as the wood is used to produce more solid HWP and more of these HWP are used in long-lived end uses.”

There is a deep idea here. The researchers are focussed on carbon capture. The way to maximize long-term carbon capture is to sustainably harvest wood and add it to the collection of long-lasting things we build and use. The wood we harvest has to come into our human world and stay in our world.

The same thing can be said for our mining products – nickel and gold are called non-renewable resources, but they can stay in circulation forever. 

They are not used up, simply moved from within the crust of the earth to the surface where we can use and reuse them. 

Properly understood, the resource industries of the North make an important contribution to a sustainable economy.

It is likely that we could more than double the amount of carbon sequestration our forest sector provides. We could minimize paper and pellet production. 

We could shift more of the wood produced to long-lasting construction materials like framing timber, flooring, glulam and cross-laminated timber. 

We could raise the quality of the wood we produce, so that a larger fraction is seen as a luxury product, kept in sight, and kept forever.

Wood is not something to use and throw away or burn. It is a flow of wealth produced by our forests and a legacy we leave our children. Wood is something we in the North contribute to the world, and we need to help the world learn to cherish it.