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  • 2024: Log it and burn it: Wood pellets, climate and British Columbia’s deepening forest crisis

    A report by Ben Parfitt for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives


    British Columbia’s forests and its once mighty forest industry are in crisis.

    After decades of intense logging, the province’s forests are depleted and fragmented and the forest industry is hard-pressed to find enough trees to cut down. In the midst of this, demand for wood from BC has soared from an unusual quarter: thermal energy producers that burn millions of tonnes of wood pellets annually to generate electricity.

    This demand is fuelling the loss of the province’s primary forests—forests never before subject to industrial logging—and if allowed to continue, will further deplete them. Fundamental reforms to the management of the province’s forests must be a priority and buyers of wood pellets and other forest products must temper their demands as a result.

    The indicators of unsustainable demand are evident in BC’s trade in wood pellets, which has doubled in the past decade led by massive increases in shipments to Japan, a country rocked by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Faced with the loss of nuclear reactors damaged by the tsunami and a decision to temporarily shut down all nuclear facilities in the country, Japan raced to increase energy production from other sources, including thermal electricity plants that burn wood pellets.

    As Japan steadily increased production of thermal electricity, its purchases of wood pellets from BC shot up. In 2014, Japan imported a modest 61,700 tonnes of wood pellets from BC. Ten years later, those imports had reached nearly 1.7 million tonnes. The likelihood that such volumes can be sustained is, however, in doubt given the crises in BC’s forests. Rising demand and shrinking supply is a volatile mix and all signs point to a collapse in available wood supply from BC for all manner of forest products, including wood pellets.

    Over the same decade that Japan’s demand for wood pellets soared, logging rates in BC fell by 38%. That decline will continue. Within the next 10 years it is expected that logging rates in the province will be roughly half what they were 20 years ago. The decline in logging is the primary reason the number of sawmills in BC continues to fall. By 2035 it is estimated there will be only 47 sawmills left, down from the 111 that operated at full tilt in the province in 2005. As sawmills close, the tremendous amount of wood waste generated at those mills will decline too, a matter of importance because large amounts of wood pellets are made from such waste.

    The other major wood fibre source for pellet mills is whole logs. But cutting down trees just to make greenhouse gas-emitting wood pellets is climactically and ecologically irresponsible and has been roundly condemned by scientists. Then there’s the wildcard of climate change. In 2023, wildfires burned 2.5% of BC’s land base setting a new record, the third such milestone in just eight years. All of this and more underscores why BC’s forests are in crisis and why BC will be increasingly unable to supply the huge quantities of wood pellets it has to Japan, the United Kingdom and other countries.

    This report concludes with six policy recommendations that will help put the management of BC’s forests on a better footing and set the stage for a more ecologically responsible supply of wood pellets and other forest products to domestic and international buyers alike.

    The six recommendations are:

    • Increase dramatically protection of remaining primary and old growth forests.

    • Zone the province’s primary forests and existing plantations into three broad categor- ies: fully conserved primary and old-growth forests; forests and plantations managed specifically to enhance key “non-timber” resources such as water and wildlife; and lastly a portion of previously logged lands to be managed for timber production and forest products, but with ecological guidelines that must be met.

    • Require by law that all timber-processing facilities, including wood pellet mills, must submit annual reports detailing all the wood used at their facilities, with a clear, verifiable breakdown of what form that wood takes.

    • Strictly prohibit pellet mills from converting trees logged in primary or old-growth forests directly into wood pellets and require pellet producers to only use the residual waste from sawmills, verifiable wood waste from logging sites, or thinnings from tree plantations as sources of raw material for pellet production.

    • Apply the carbon tax to all emissions associated with logs or wood waste that is currently burned as “slash” at logging operations. This will act as an incentive to either leave such wood unburned at logging sites or to bring it into mill towns where it could be used to make a range of forest products, including but not limited to wood pellets.

    • Enact a solid-wood-first strategy and penalize all companies that convert logs or portions of logs to wood pellets that could instead be used to make other forest products. Solid wood products like doors or lumber used to frame a house hold the carbon originally sequestered by the tree, while wood pellets instantaneously release stored carbon upon combustion.

    Download the full report: CCPA-Log it and burn it-web final.pdf


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