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The "second life" of trees support a low carbon future

Whether as a standing spruce tree or a vaulted ceiling, Canada’s forest resources play an important role in the management of carbon emissions and removals.

When thinking about Canada’s forests, most people think of endless vistas of conifers and stands of fiery maples absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the tree’s wood. But the truth is, carbon storage does not only occur in growing trees. Once a tree is harvested, its second life as a forest-based product begins. Because products manufactured from forest biomass continue to store carbon, both the living trees and the forest products we create from them have the opportunity to contribute to a low-carbon future in Canada.

Carbon storage occurs when carbon dioxide is “captured” from the air and stored within something, such as the wood of a tree. This wood then becomes a “carbon sink.”

A stack of cross-laminated timber panels.
Cross-laminated timber panels.

Storing carbon in long-lived forest products

Strategic use of forest resources means that carbon can be stored in forest products for decades. For example, 2x4 dimensional lumber beams are used in 90% of new single-family houses in North America. As well, cross-laminated timber – consisting of three to seven layers of lumber glued together to create structural panels with exceptional strength and stability – are essential for tall wood building construction. These forest products store carbon for the duration of their lives, so a combination of sustainable forest management and strategic use of forest products means that carbon is stored for as long as possible.

What is the bioeconomy?

In the bioeconomy, renewable and sustainably sourced biomass resources are used to provide a greater range of consumer and industrial products to society. The biomass comes from trees, agricultural crops and organic residuals from harvesting and timber processing. Potential products range from food additives and textiles to construction materials, auto parts, bioplastics, biochemicals, and fuel for vehicles and planes.

Finding a use for every part of the tree

Canadian forest sector companies strive to find a use for every part of the tree and in doing so help to grow Canada’s bioeconomy. For example, sawmills generate residues in the form of wood chips or sawdust. These residues are valuable and can be processed into panels, paper products, or wood pellets, for both domestic use and international export. In fact, the forest industry is a leader in finding new ways to use forest biomass to offset greenhouse gases (GHGs) and add value to the Canadian economy. These efforts have contributed to a 38% reduction in total fossil GHG emissions from the forest industry between 2006 and 2016.

With the combination of long-lived and innovative wood products and forest management activities, Canada’s forest sector has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 million tonnes annually by 2050. That is how Canada’s trees contribute to a green future, both inside and outside the forest.

Hands holding wood pellets with wood chips in background.
Waste sawdust and wood chips from saw mills can be used to create panels, paper, or wood pellets.

Replacing non-renewable resources

Products from sustainably managed forests also contribute to a low-carbon future by replacing carbon-intensive, non-renewable construction materials. For example, glued laminated timber (glulam) is a structural engineered wood product that can reduce the need for traditional construction materials such as steel and concrete. Remote communities can use local forest biomass from nearby harvest areas or from forest thinning activities undertaken to reduce forest fire risks to produce heat and electricity and offset the amount of fossil fuel historically brought into the community.

A tall wood building.
A 13-storey residential tall wood building in Quebec City’s Pointe-aux-Lièvres eco-district.
Photo credits
  • Photo of cross-laminated timber panels. Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service.
  • Photo of Origine, courtesy of Stephane Groleau.
  • Photo of wood pellets courtesy of Pacific BioEnergy Prince George LP.

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2019. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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