By Eric Miller
If you surveyed 1000 Canadians, as pollsters often do, and asked them to provide an example of an innovative sector, most would not name forestry. Yet, in an age of increased trade protectionism, worsening forest fires and concerns about environmental impact of materials from cement to plastic, Canada’s forest products industry is meeting these challenges head on.
Years of extensive collaboration with governments, Indigenous communities, and research partners has made Canada’s forest products sector a global leader in product and process innovation, environmental stewardship, and international trade. Yet as science transforms the materials of daily life and new markets enter the global middle class, the question before us is how do we fully unlock the economic and environmental value Canada’s forest products industry. Put another way, how can Canada’s forest products sector go from good to great.
Let’s begin by reviewing our assets.
Canada’s forests are the envy of the world – a bountiful and renewable resource that is carefully managed and thus available to our people forever. Almost ten percent of the world’s forests are here in Canada. And through a ‘Made in Canada’ approach to forest management, among the most rigorously regulated in the world, we have helped Canada retain more than 90% of our original forest cover. Less than 0.5% of Canada’s forests are harvested each year, and every tree that is harvested is replaced. Last year, over 600 million seedlings were planted. After all, without healthy forests, one cannot have a healthy forest products sector.
Canada has become a leader in forest product and process innovation because companies in the sector and Canada’s governments are genuine partners in leveraging this renewable resource. Our governments do not simply fund research in a vacuum or demand that the private sector does it on its own. Rather, there is a more collaborative approach. Private public partnerships through investments in organizations like FPInnovations, Canada Wood, and the Canadian Wood Council have been key in advancing the Canadian opportunity domestically as well as globally. The “forest products” model of government-industry collaboration in Canada is one that many other sectors – not to mention Canadians – would benefit from.
Canadian forestry has been recognized for its transformative work. In the federal government’s Report from Canada’s Economic Strategy Tables: The Innovation and Competitiveness Imperative, the forest products sector was lauded for the modernization of its operations. It also recognized the power of the sector’s branding and marketing programs, its commercialization of new products, and the advancing sustainability and economic opportunity in northern and rural Canada.
Forestry in Canada is providing real solutions to fight climate change. The sector was the first in Canada to launch an industry-wide commitment to contribute to the federal government’s commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. Since 1990, Canada’s pulp and paper mills have reduced their emissions by almost 70%.
Notwithstanding these advantages, one only needs to look to British Columbia today to see the real pressures that exist and the impacts they can have on families in rural and northern communities. The mountain pine beetle has chewed up over 60% of BC’s pine trees and record-setting fire seasons have led to a reduced wood basket, resulting in a number of mill closures and job losses in the province. Slowing U.S. housing starts, increasing operating costs, and softwood lumber tariffs have not helped the cause.
Getting through this difficult period requires focusing with greater precision on the sectors’ advantages in creating a growing forest bio-economy. In a recent report published by the C.D. Howe Institute, I offer a pathway for achieving this. Recommendations include:
- Scaling up government contributions to not-for-profit innovation hubs to accelerate innovation and commercialization of new forest-based products.
- Making Canada a world leader in tall wood building construction by continuing to support private-public partnerships.
- Ensuring regulatory neutrality for the use of emerging wood and wood-based products.
- Driving local solutions to forest management, adaptation, and mitigation.
- Expanding and diversifying markets in Asia through innovative partnerships in the construction sector.
Canada’s working forests provide solutions to fight climate change while bringing good-paying jobs to families in communities where there are often limited options. To maximize the opportunity, we need an ongoing commitment from governments to build on the momentum of what’s been started – making Canada’s forest products sector THE global leader in innovation, environment, and internationalization.
The future will be made of wood. Let’s all commit ourselves to making sure it’s Canadian.
Eric Miller is President of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group and author of a recent C.D. Howe Institute report Branching Out: How Canada’s Forestry Products Sector is Reshaping its Future.