Premier Rachel Notley took a bold step to address climate change, an issue that has the potential to limit Alberta’s economic growth and harm our natural environment. The reality is that now is the time to act to ensure our air remains clean and that Alberta’s brand as an environmentally responsible supplier of resources remains strong.
Alberta’s forest sector will play a key role in the climate change strategy, and for good reason — our sector has the expertise to sustainably harvest a renewable resource and turn it into building materials, electricity, pulp, paper and other materials essential to our province’s growth. We also work closely with government to manage Alberta’s best defence against climate change, our forests.
Alberta has 38 million hectares of forests, an area roughly the same size as Japan. The link between maintaining healthy forests and preventing climate change has long been established — as young trees grow, they sequester carbon from the atmosphere. As the tree grows older, its rate of sequestration slows and the risk of forest fire increases. Forest fires are natural in Alberta; left to their own devices, our forests burn every 80 to 100 years. They’re also a major contributor to climate change, since they release all that sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere.
Sustainable forestry offers a unique alternative to this cycle. Take a mature tree and all of its carbon, sequester it in the form of useful products such as lumber, and use the residuals (bark, sawdust, etc.) to create electricity. In place of the old tree, plant two new ones that begin to grow and sequester more carbon.
The statistics certainly back this approach. A six-storey apartment building that is framed with wood stores the same amount of carbon that 672 cars generate in one year. Use steel or concrete to frame the building, and you have a huge expenditure of carbon, with little sequestration.
From an electricity standpoint, replacing traditional fossil fuels with biomass from forestry, agriculture and other sources makes sense. Not only are residuals from these sectors far less polluting than fossil fuels, they are also completely renewable. Through several generations of operation, Alberta’s forest industry has proven that trees can be sustainably harvested and regrown. The use of bark and sawdust, instead of whole trees, to produce electricity means that zero additional trees are harvested for the generation of electricity. Using this approach, Alberta’s forest industry currently generates enough power for about four cities the size of Grande Prairie.
This is a great start. But with additional investments in generation technology, much more can be done. As we begin to phase out traditional fossil fuel sources, demand will undoubtedly spur innovation in biomass generation. This process will also help to forward the goal of creating a more diversified economy and a cleaner future for our province.
Alberta’s forest industry will be there every step of the way to help green our future and tell our great story to the world.
Paul Whittaker is president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association. The Alberta Forest Products Association is a private, non-profit industry organization, representing lumber, panelboard, pulp and paper, and secondary manufacturing wood products companies operating in Alberta.