Canada’s immense forests store vast quantities of carbon — and could do much more to mitigate CO2 emissions.

Canada is a nation of forests. They cover more than 34 million square kilometres and account for about 9 percent of the world’s forest area.  As well as being important socially and economically to communities across the country — the forest industry employed 232,000 people and contributed more than $20 billion to the Canadian economy in 2014 — forests provide many important ecological services, including storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.

Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Achieving this commitment will require action at all levels of decision-making and in all sectors of the economy. In this article, we describe how Canadian forests and forest products can contribute to the national effort to mitigate climate change.

Over the 20th century, Canada’s managed forest areas and products made from wood removed more carbon from the atmosphere than was emitted by all fossil fuels burned in Canada over the same time. In 2013 alone, Canada’s managed forests absorbed 150 million tonnes of CO2 from the air, more than all of Canada’s emissions from cars and trucks in that same year. In addition, 39 million tonnes of carbon was stored in wood products harvested from Canadian forests in 2013, according to Environment Canada.

However, carbon storage by forests and in wood products cannot obviate the need to reduce CO2 emissions deeply and quickly. Emissions from burning fossil fuel take carbon that was otherwise permanently stored in the earth and add it to the global carbon cycle. Since it takes centuries for CO2 added to the carbon cycle to be removed from the air by natural processes, in human terms, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel cause permanent climate change. A temperature increase of 2°C in global average temperature is often cited as the point beyond which there would be “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” as the UN Environment Programme puts it. At current emission rates, in only 10 years the world will be 20 percent of the way to a 2°C increase, and the planet’s temperature will increase beyond 2°C within 50 years.

Many sectors of Canadian society have yet to address the need for greenhouse gas emission reduction. In comparison, the forest sector is already making substantial contributions to climate change mitigation. There are two approaches to address the problem:  reduce CO2 emissions by burning fewer fossil fuels, and remove CO2 from the atmosphere — a process known as carbon capture and storage. The forest sector contributes in both areas.

Forests are nature’s method of carbon capture and storage. Trees absorb CO2 from the air and use the sun’s energy to convert that CO2 into carbon-containing compounds that make up wood and tree bark. When forests are harvested sustainably, they provide products that store carbon, while harvested forests regrow, storing more carbon.  Even after their initial use, wood products can be reused, remanufactured or recycled. Paper products recycling is the best-known example: in Canada about 70 percent of paper and cardboard is recycled, one of the highest rates in the world.

Wood and paper products are often disposed of in landfills at present. Landfill decomposition can be very slow due to the lack of oxygen, with even paper storing carbon for decades, resulting in a growing pool of stored landfill carbon. However, wood and paper decomposing anaerobically in landfill produce methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas — but it can be collected and burned. To the extent that this new energy source replaces fossil fuels, it provides additional mitigation.

In some instances, forest products contribute to reducing fossil-fuel CO2 emissions by displacing non-wood alternatives that require more CO2 for production than wood. The displacement benefits of forest products are an important contribution to climate change mitigation. By one estimate, for every tonne of wood used in residential construction, 7.5 to 9 tonnes of CO2 emissions are avoided. In addition, wood waste and end-of-life wood can be burned instead of being landfilled, producing low-net-emissions energy in place of fossil-fuel-energy emissions.

The Canadian forest sector can play an increasingly important role in the move to a low-carbon global economy, as described in an issues paper just released by the Canadian Climate Forum with support from the Forest Products Association of Canada. Climate change mitigation through the forest sector can also be increased by clear government economic and policy incentives. Such incentives could promote climate change mitigation by encouraging the replacement of more emissions-intensive products with wood products; promoting more prolonged service life and recycling of wood products; facilitating the replacement of fossil-fuel energy with low-net-emissions bioenergy; and supporting innovation in forest products that store carbon and displace products with larger carbon footprints.

At the same time as the forest sector contributes to climate change mitigation, the sector must help forests adapt to climate change. The future ability of trees to sequester carbon will be challenged as temperatures rise, precipitation patterns change and extreme weather becomes more frequent and severe. There will be more forest fires and infestations of insects such as the mountain pine beetle. One of the major challenges of sustainable forest management is finding the appropriate balance between conserving Canada’s forests as we know them and promoting change to adapt to new climate conditions. Getting this balance right is crucial because the long-term contribution of Canada’s forests to carbon storage and climate change mitigation is inextricably tied to efforts to maintain their sustainability, with global consequences if that goal is not achieved.

Canada has a rich endowment of forests that store carbon and provide a sustainable supply of renewable materials for products with a low carbon footprint. In our view, Canada’s forest sector, governments, First Nations and environmental non-governmental organizations can be partners in an environmental movement to reduce climate change by using adaptive approaches to sustainable forest management and increasing uses for forest products.