Everyone knows that as a forest grows, trees absorb and store carbon. The lesser-known fact is that as forests age, they gradually lose their carbon-storing abilities and face a growing risk of drought, disease, insect infestation, and fire. In the process, forests become more likely to release stored carbon back into the atmosphere; turning our trees from climate change fighting assets into liabilities.

This is where the forest sector comes in. Rooted in the principles of sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and supporting forest health and renewal – Canadian foresters have, for decades, acted as our first line of defence in managing dynamic forest ecosystems and have long supported the need for action on climate change.

In fact, Canada’s approach to sustainable forest management is based on a long history of science, experience, and community involvement. Not only have we retained over 90% of our original forest cover, but Canada’s foresters harvest less than 1% of harvestable forests per year and replant between 400 and 600 million seedlings annually.

In addition to some of the toughest and well-enforced government regulations in the world, Canada also leads the way in third-party forest certification – home to 36% of the entire world’s certified sustainably-managed forests.

Historically, Canada’s forests were a net sink that absorbed more carbon than they released. But the balance has shifted over the past two decades in the face of worsening natural disturbances. Canada’s forests have become an overall net source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with insects and fire emerging as the biggest problems for Canada’s carbon story.

In the months ahead, we have an opportunity to better leverage Canada’s forest resources to build greener homes, businesses, and communities while working to mitigate the growing risks of worsening pest outbreaks and catastrophic fire patterns. And while we know that sustainable forest management and the use of renewable forest products has never been more important – we need decisive leadership to help us enable the possible.

By capturing carbon, forests play a critical role in our fight against climate change. And the products we make coming out of them are equally important for climate action.

One cubic metre of wood stores approximately one tonne of CO2. In 2019, Canada produced approximately 70 million m3 of lumber and board. That is 70 million tonnes of CO2 locked away every year, most of it for decades or centuries.

Improved domestic and international markets for lumber and mass timber, such as cross-laminated timber and glued laminated timber, will help reduce Canada’s GHG emissions in a significant way. This can be accelerated by prioritising the use of made-in-Canada forest products for green procurement and federal infrastructure projects, establishing a National Net-Zero Building Strategy that includes carbon-storing wood products, and promoting Canadian-made forest products to the world – not to mention standing up for Canadian industry and workers in the face of increasing global trade protectionism.

As a leader in Climate Smart Forestry, our sector can play a key role in Canada’s national climate change adaptation plans by leveraging the benefits of responsible and sustainable forest management. This means developing a plan with the provinces to thin fire-prone stands and use prescribed burns to avoid megafires that scorch both trees and organic soil and threaten human life, wildlife, homes, and critical infrastructure. Indigenous leadership and engagement in this effort is essential to its ultimate success in communities across the country.

Where pest infestations occur we must move more quickly to contain outbreaks and the fire risks that often follow. We can also restore forest lands that have low productivity or poor biodiversity by thinning and removing deteriorating trees to provide the light and space needed to grow larger trees and more resilient forests. All of this can be taken further by working with indigenous and local communities to incorporate local values into planning to create much-needed economic activity to help power some 600 communities across the country.

The overarching goal of Climate Smart Forestry is to maximise forest productivity, store carbon, and support biodiversity in the forest over time. While these activities will not yield instant results, they have the potential to reduce GHG emissions relative to baseline by 100-200Mt CO2 per year by 2050.

Through innovation, implementing new technologies, and growing markets for low-grade wood we can do even more. Some of the wood harvested for Climate Smart Forestry will not meet the high-quality requirements for Canadian sawmill production. Historically, there was significant demand for low-grade timber and residues from lumber milling for pulp and paper production, but with digitisation and a challenging investment environment, we have seen decline in this demand in many parts of the country. We must find a new path forward for these materials and Canada’s emerging forest bioeconomy holds incredible promise – biofuels, bioplastics, and bio-adhesives like lignin, to name a few.

With our federal government’s support we can further reduce GHG emissions at Canada’s pulp and paper mills. The Canadian forest sector was an early adopter of new technologies and processes to reduce GHG emissions on production sites. Since the early 1990s, GHG emissions are down by nearly 70%, making Canada’s mills among the greenest in the world. We can do even more. It’s now a case of what got us here, will not get us there. There are game-changing opportunities to move many of these mills to net-zero carbon in the next few years. Programmes like the Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) and the Net-Zero Accelerator Fund need to be revisited and more robust to help us get there.

The time is now to use sustainable forest management as a nature-based climate solution to accelerate GHG reductions in the built environment and at Canadian mills, deliver on our international climate commitments, strengthen prospects for Canadian forestry families and communities, and help build resiliency in our forests and keep communities safer from fire.

Canada’s forests, manufacturing facilities, forest products, and Canadian forestry know-how give our country an advantage that is the envy of most countries on the planet. We must use it.