The world’s forests are being cut down in ways and at rates that make natural recovery difficult, if not impossible — to the detriment of the life, livelihoods and services they support. The solution lies in radically changing how we value and manage forests. Forests will persist only when we pursue a circular approach that maximizes their value to our collective well-being and eliminates the wastefulness we have come to accept as inevitable.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems: “Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.”

Canada’s forests are more than a part of our culture and national identity. They’re central to our food and water security, health and economy. With 9 percent of the world’s forests, and 24 percent of the world’s boreal forests, Canada can make important contributions to global well-being. Yet when we seek to measure the value of forests, we constrain ourselves by placing monetary value above all else. We see them for their timber, fruits and fibre — products that can be bought and sold. The recent federal budget framed the forest sector as an “important source of jobs and growth.” It is that, but the value forests bring to things like biodiversity, culture and quality of life, where monetized value can be harder to prove, is no less important to human well-being.

Once we are able to embrace the worth of forests beyond a dollar value, we can adopt a management strategy based on their overall contribution to society. We can make better plans that take into account and safeguard their effects on human well-being. That means moving from an industry that depends on raw materials and creates waste to one that uses design, technology and manufacturing innovation, to make the idea of waste obsolete — an industry that prioritizes recycling, reusing and remanufacturing throughout the life-cycle stages. An industry that, in short, can do more, and profit more, with less.

The impact of embracing a circular vision goes far beyond protecting any one forest.

It’s a rethink of the business model that is badly needed in Canada and beyond. This type of model, a central tenet of the circular and bioeconomy approaches, has been gaining ground throughout Europe. In 2015, the European Commission adopted an action plan to promote Europe’s transition to a circular economy. Finland, widely seen as a leader in this respect, set out its own national circular economy road map the following year. It is committed to creating more value with much less waste. It’s something we could learn from.

Canadian towns, cities and provinces have been taking action to reduce waste and move toward principles of a circular economy. Ontario’s Strategy for a Waste-Free Ontario takes steps to reduce waste and use waste more responsibly. Vancouver has a goal to cut down on landfill waste by 50 percent by 2020. The federal budget has proposed investing $251.3 million over three years in the forest sector, which would include support for innovation, renewable resources and clean growth. However, across the board, Canada lacks a comprehensive strategy for supporting this transition to a sustainable economy. Forests are a good place to start.

The impact of embracing a circular vision goes far beyond protecting any one forest. In Europe, circular economy strategies have been proven to create employment — with jobs that are well suited for the future — and to increase business competitiveness by reducing uncertainty around supply. A circular economy can also help mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is in line with Canada’s clean progress agenda.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Forests was education. Let’s take the time to educate ourselves not only about Canada’s 347 million hectares of beautiful and essential forests but also about how we can keep our forests thriving into the future, long after the choices we make today take root.

Photo: Shutterstock By David Boutin

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Yannick Beaudoin
Yannick Beaudoin is director general, Ontario and Northern Canada, for the David Suzuki Foundation.

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