Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined more than 100 other nations at the COP26 climate summit in agreeing to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, backed by $19 billion in funds from countries and some private companies.
But what exactly does this promise mean for Canada and how does the Trudeau government plan to follow through on this pact?
The pledge, made late Monday at the climate talks in Glasgow, was signed by the leaders of countries including the U.K., U.S., Canada, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which collectively account for 85 per cent of the world’s forests.
The nearly US$20 billion in pooled funding will go towards ending and reversing deforestation and land degradation while promoting “sustainable commodity production and consumption.” Another US$1.5 billion in funding was also announced to help protect the Congo Basin – home to the second-largest tropical rain forest in the world.
How does the pact affect Canada?
Forests are vital in the fight against climate change. Around the world they absorb roughly 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the nonprofit World Resources Institute.
Just last year, around the world roughly 258,000 square kilometres of forest – an area larger than the size of the United Kingdom – was lost to deforestation, according to the World Resources Institute’s tracking initiative Global Forest Watch.
It’s important to note the agreement centres on the international definition of deforestation: forest which is permanently lost to other uses like agriculture, resource extraction, or housing.
The agreement doesn’t appear to include forests that are clear cut and then replanted.
Forestry experts say while the pledge is welcome there are concerns it is a missed opportunity for Canada where deforestation – as it is internationally defined – is minimal.
According to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), the country’s deforestation rate has declined from around 64,000 hectares (ha) per year in 1990 to about 34,300 ha per year in 2018, meaning less than half of one per cent of Canada’s total forest area was converted for other land uses.
The declaration could have more positive implications for countries like Brazil, where the Amazon rain forest is under threat from agriculture. But it could be less significant for Canada where trees are cut down for pulp and paper or wood-product manufacturing but are then replanted.
Rachel Holt, a B.C. ecologist who has worked on forestry issues for decades, said it is concerning that the new agreement doesn’t focus on the impact of clear-cutting, which adds “massive amounts” of carbon into the air. “Clear-cutting” means that all of the trees in an area are cut, not just selected trees, according to the NRC.
Canada’s boreal forest is a critical “carbon sink.” Boreal forests, per hectare, stores more carbon than tropical rain forests, and according to the NRC, roughly 30 per cent of the world’s boreal zone is located in Canada – 552 million hectares.
Under Canada’s sustainable forest management system, trees that are cut down have to be replanted.
But with just a few decades for countries to take drastic action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Canada’s current system of clear-cutting and logging replanting won’t help those goals, Holt said.
“As a matter of policy, we cut down large amounts of big, old forest that has been storing carbon for thousands of years,” she said. “Half of that storage is in the soil and half of it is in the trees, and we immediately release 60 per cent of it into the sky.”
Holt and other forestry experts have also called for the expanded role of Indigenous communities in the conservation of forests. As more than 90 per cent of forests reside on provincial land, forestry management decisions fall to the provinces.
The B.C. government said Tuesday it has begun consulting with dozens of First Nations about putting a pause to any logging operations threatening thousands of square kilometres of the most vulnerable old-growth ecosystems in the province.
And at an international level, five countries, including Britain and the United States, and a group of global charities also pledged Tuesday to provide $1.7 billion in financing to support Indigenous People’s conservation of forests and to strengthen their land rights.
Canada was not a signatory to this agreement.
Does Canada accurately report the impact of its forestry sector?
Several reports over the years have raised questions about how effectively Canada is monitoring its forestry sector and whether it’s underreporting its effects in terms of carbon emissions and levels of deforestation.
In 2019, researchers from Wildlands League – a non-profit environmental group from Toronto – revealed the impact of so-called “logging scars:” the temporary roads, pits and landing sites that they say have caused underreported environmental damage to forests.
The study looked at an area north of Thunder Bay, Ont., using fly-over surveys and on-the-ground reporting. Researchers estimated that approximately 21,700 ha are deforested each year in Ontario due to roads and landings from the forestry industry – roughly 40,000 football fields.
Anna Baggio, director of Conservation at Wildlands League, said researchers have followed up on 264 additional sites in the study area since 2019 which have shown similar logging scars.
“We have big blind spots about what’s going on in our own country,” Baggio said. “These are areas of roads and landings where trees are not growing back. When you start to add them up … it’s quite a significant impact.”
According to Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, an average of just over 650 ha were deforested each year between 2008 – 2018. The Ministry’s annual reports note that temporary forest access roads, called operational roads, are not included in the estimate of deforestation.
“Minimizing forest loss from deforestation and establishing new forests through afforestation can help maintain the values from our forests and mitigate climate change,” Morgan Kerekes, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Natural Resources said in an email. “Ontario’s forest policy framework is an interconnected system of laws, regulations, and policies. It is a robust system, based on the most up-to-date science, continual improvement, and public and Indigenous consultation.
A report released last week by Environment Defence Canada and several other non-profits ahead of COP26 suggests that pollution from Canada’s logging sector is at least 80 megatonnes higher than what the industry reports.
Eighty megatonnes is roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from all the buildings in Canada.
The report said Canada is taking a “biased approach” in its emissions reporting by excluding emissions from logging roads or damaged forests but including emissions reductions from undisturbed forests that have never been logged.
Scott Jackson, director of conservation biology with the Forest Products Association of Canada, said that Canada is a “global leader” in forest certification and sustainable sourcing of forest products.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve been tracking deforestation in Canada for decades,” Jackson said. “We have the statistics, the data to show that we’ve been very successful at reducing the area of deforestation in the country.”
Jackson pushed back against suggestions that Canada is underreporting the effects of clear-cutting and logging.
“Forestry in Ontario and in Canada is very heavily monitored and reported, and that includes a lot of third-party audits,” Jackson said.
Global News reached out to Natural Resources Canada for response to allegations it is underreporting emissions from its forestry industry but did not receive a response.