Economic Recovery and Climate Change: Forest Sector Contributions to a Low Carbon Economy
As we find ourselves learning to live with a global pandemic, we are also facing some realities that have long been hovering at the edges of our collective conscious. Racism is real. Climate change is happening now. Economic health is directly linked to social and environmental health. We’re witnessing and being impacted by disease, natural disasters and storms, wildfires, protests and deep droughts. It’s easy to be overwhelmed or to play ostrich, but that’s not what is happening. We’re seeing minds and efforts turned toward solutions, rethinking of our collective histories, and our place and privilege in the world. We’re seeing heroic efforts to contain and combat a pandemic and massive fires and to provide relief and hope in the face of disasters of all kinds. And we are seeing the refocusing of industries and governments towards solutions and innovations to rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.
In May 2021, the Standing Committee on Natural Resources released a report that speaks to the importance that Canada’s forest sector will play in a post-COVID economic recovery that is both green and inclusive. Like other industries, the forest sector was hard-hit with the onset of a global pandemic and the resulting measures taken by governments and nations to deal with the pandemic. Initial lockdowns resulted in labour disruptions, transportation backlogs, production cutbacks, even shutdowns for some forest operations and facilities. But since forest products were deemed essential in the early days of COVID-19 there has been concerted effort across the industry to work with governments to protect the health and safety of employees while maintaining the safe movement of essential goods across borders.
Some of the challenges weren’t new and were only amplified by the pandemic. While some sectors saw reductions in demand for their products, others realized significant increases. What is clear though is industry’s ability to rise to the challenge, adapt quickly and look for workable solutions. Some facilities were able to redirect production to support manufacturing of masks and other personal protection equipment; others were able to maintain production to meet steeply increasing demands in the residential construction sector.
New Brunswick’s economic health is dependent on forestry and related sectors, employing over 24,000 people and contributing $1.7 billion to the provincial economy annually. Healthy economies translate into healthy communities, with services and employment opportunities. One of the lingering challenges facing New Brunswick that is amplified by COVID-19 has been the ability to fill the labour market demands within the sector. With an aging population and expected retirements over the next 10 years, New Brunswick is set to see more than 120,000 job vacancies across all sectors. It’s clear we can’t fill this need in any sector with a declining population and the anticipated numbers of youth coming out of schools over the same time period. Expanding the forestry workforce will require thoughtful planning and targeted training. While we are seeing moderate progress in the diversification of the workforce since 2016, there is more to be done. Attracting more Indigenous people and businesses, women, and immigrants to work in the industry and developing the future workforce are critical for the continued success of the industry.
Forest NB is investing in efforts with provincial, federal and industry partners to meet these needs.
Industry leaders and governments also believe the forestry sector will drive innovation and help governments reach emissions targets. Canada’s forest sector is already recognized as one of the best regulated in the world for the protection of biodiversity and conservation areas and is poised to be a significant partner in achieving a carbon-neutral economy. Sustainable management practices can maximize carbon sequestration in working forests, all the while optimizing production, preventing and managing pests and prioritizing the harvest of at-risk areas.
We’ve seen the success of the Early Intervention Strategy for Spruce Budworm over the last several years. This partnership with the federal and Atlantic provincial governments, industry and academia is providing significant protection for forest habitats, ensuring forest carbon sequestration is not compromised, and protecting the forest-dependent economy. This type of intervention strategy also helps to prevent serious wildfire outbreaks that endanger communities and are a significant contributor of carbon to the atmosphere. Continued partnerships and efforts of this nature will be even more important as we experience the ongoing impacts of climate change for our forests and the sector.
The provincial government also recognizes the potential for sustainably managed forests to contribute to a lower carbon economy. NB Climate Change Action Plan Progress Report 2020 highlights government’s work to strategically incorporate a process for estimating carbon supply at the stand level that enables the current forest carbon stocks and forecasts to be estimated based on various scenarios and increasing our understanding of the optimal management of forests as a carbon sink. These will be important management tools for the future.
Research and development for improved and alternate tree species that can tolerate changing climatic conditions and fulfill the needs of industry is happening at the national and provincial levels. Focusing on a circular economy that makes better use of wood fibre and wood products offers alternatives to higher carbon-intensity products and can contribute significantly to reducing overall emissions. There are also innovative projects underway to look at alternative bioproducts and biofuels to diversify the range of products that can be derived from forest biomass (waste) that isn’t traditionally used. Natural Resources Canada is currently working to reorient their funding programs to support research and development for the bioeconomy, and provincial governments are interested in these alternatives.
The solid wood and pulp and paper sectors will remain an important part of the forest sector, and opportunities to diversify products and fully utilize working forests are on the rise. With the current and future focus so clearly on social wellbeing, mitigating climate change and rebuilding the economy, the forest sector is well-positioned to adapt and evolve. It’s clear that we can balance economic development with sustainable environmental and social development both nationally and here in New Brunswick, and Forest NB will be working with our members and partners to realize some of these opportunities and innovations as the industry continues to evolve and support New Brunswickers.