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A logging truck near Port Renfrew, B.C., on Sept. 9, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 100 scientists from around the world are urging the federal government to prioritize the protection of Canada’s most biodiverse forests as part of its first emissions reduction plan, due by the end of this month. They are also calling on Ottawa to launch a comprehensive review of the way the government quantifies emissions in the forestry sector.

Under the Liberals’ Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, the government must release an emissions reduction plan by March 31 that lays out the country’s strategy to meet its 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent from 2005 levels.

“With the release of Canada’s 2030 Emission Reduction Plan this spring, we strongly recommend the Government of Canada use this opportunity to advance measures to protect primary forests and older forests, and to make their protection a key pillar of its natural climate solutions commitments,” the March 23 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.

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Nature Canada, which co-organized the letter with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nature Québec, said it believes this is the first time such a large group of international scientists have weighed in on Canada’s climate plan. The scientists, who work at the intersection of ecosystems and climate change, are based in Canada, the United States, Australia and several European countries.

Canada is among the 141 countries that endorsed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, which emerged from last year’s UN climate conference and pledges to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade. Along with the other G7 countries, Canada has also committed to conserving or protecting at least 30 per cent of its lands, inland waters, and coastal and marine areas by 2030.

The country is the steward of roughly 16 per cent of the world’s remaining primary forests, with some of the last swaths of these biodiverse ecosystems found in its boreal forest. A primary forest is not defined by the age of its trees; rather, it is one that has not been industrially developed.

In their letter, the scientists say Canada must do a better job of accurately and transparently quantifying and reporting on emissions from the forestry sector. “Recent global studies have shown significant disparities between national greenhouse-gas inventories and actual atmospheric emissions, most egregiously in the land sector,” the letter says. “Given Canada’s large forest area and high logging rates, accurate forest emissions accounting is essential to ensuring the integrity of Canada’s overall climate goals.”

A report released last year by Nature Canada and several other non-profits said Ottawa has been underreporting total carbon dioxide emissions from the forestry sector by more than 80 million tonnes a year. The main driver of the disparity, the report said, is a “biased” accounting approach that, for example, excludes emissions released from wildfires but takes credit for the carbon stored in trees that regenerate in burned areas.

Dr. Dominick DellaSala, a signatory to the letter and chief scientist at California-based forest conservation group Wild Heritage, said logging of old-growth forests releases upward of 40 per cent of the carbon stored in the trees and soils within just a few years; the rest is eventually released when paper and wood products are disposed of. He also noted it is only after several decades that replanted trees will start absorbing and storing meaningful levels of carbon dioxide.

Dr. DellaSala said British Columbia is “ground zero” for concerns related to emissions from the forestry sector as well as biodiversity loss. By writing to Mr. Trudeau, he said, “the international community is saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We’ve got a global problem here. Every country needs to be part of the solution.’”

B.C. is home to one-quarter of the world’s rare coastal temperate rainforest. The federal government has recognized that long-term protection for old-growth forests in the province is critical to meeting its national conservation targets.

Last year, the federal Liberals offered to create a $50-million B.C. old-growth nature fund, to help preserve ancient forests from logging. The province was dismissive of the offer, saying the money fell far short of what is needed, but talks between the two governments are under way on how the fund could work.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government announced plans last November to suspend logging in one-third of the province’s rare, old-growth forests. However, most of the plan remains in limbo, as the province seeks First Nations approvals for any deferrals within their traditional territories.

Forest ecologist Karen Price is a signatory of the letter to Mr. Trudeau and a member of the B.C. government’s Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel that mapped out the proposed deferral areas. The province, she said in an interview, is key to Canada’s conservation and emissions-reduction ambitions. “B.C. is mostly forested, it is mostly not privately owned, it is ecologically diverse, and it has massive carbon storage potential,” she said.

However, the province’s protected areas currently fall short of the 30-per-cent target, she said, and there isn’t enough highly productive forests of large, old-growth trees left in B.C. to meet Canada’s goal. That is why Canada needs to include a broader range of forests, including some that have been altered by wildfires in the past. “We need to move beyond old growth,” Dr. Price said.

While scientists are questioning Canada’s forestry protections and emissions accounting, some forestry companies are already moving ahead with plans to sell carbon offsets instead of lumber.

In mid-March, for example, one of Canada’s largest timber companies, Mosaic Forest Management Corp., announced it is setting aside 40,000 hectares of its private lands. Instead of logging the mostly primary coastal forests, it will sell nature-based carbon credits to companies that want to offset a portion of their greenhouse gas emissions.

The president of the Canadian chapter of the Forest Stewardship Council, which sets standards for what constitutes a responsibly managed forest, and whose members include environmentalists and forest industry stakeholders, said the council’s standards preclude logging activities on primary forests from being certified.

“We’re not [certifying] any significant industrial activities on old growth,” François Dufresne said. “We want to maintain these primary forests, because they’re very hard to replace.”

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