Back to blog | October 5 2021 | Lucas Moreau | Candidat au Doctorat en sciences forestières, Université Laval

Québec’s forests, an asset in the fight against climate change

Climate change is real. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, once again supports the extent of the phenomenon.

The scientific community is working both to curb the increase in CO2 1 and limit its impact on communities2. In light of this, Québec has ambitious targets for addressing climate change. It aims for “carbon neutrality” by 2050. For those who are curious, it is possible to get an idea of what our climate will look like in the future (temperatures, precipitation, etc.) thanks to the modelling work done by the Ouranos consortium.

Many of our vast forests in Québec are managed sustainably. They could make the entire forestry sector a major player in the fight against climate change.

When we think of the role of the forest in the fight against climate change, we often think first of the ability of vegetation to grow and thus accumulate biomass3, thanks to the photosynthesis4 process. Vegetation growth involves the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to vegetation, called a sequestration flux. As trees grow, they absorb carbon and are, therefore, potentially a huge reservoir of carbon!

It is important to understand that this reservoir can easily be divided into two sub-reservoirs, the first consisting of living biomass and the second of dead biomass. Because, while photosynthesis is a sequestration flux that increases the reservoir of living biomass, decomposition5 is an emission flux that will release carbon from the dead biomass reservoir into the atmosphere. It is therefore essential to consider these two reservoirs carefully when talking about forest carbon.

The sum of a forest’s total carbon sequestration and emission fluxes is called the carbon budget. If it is negative, the sequestration is higher than the emissions, so the total carbon reservoir in our forest is increasing.

When we talk about the role of the forestry sector in the fight against climate change, we are not just talking about what is happening in the forest! And here again, Québec can play an important role by developing wood products with high added value that are innovative and supported by sustainable forest management.

Wood harvesting allows the manufacture of products, from the classic 2×4 to glued-laminated beams and the extraction of some molecules of interest in chemistry. This wood, once processed, remains an important reservoir of carbon throughout its useful life. The carbon in the wood is released into the atmosphere when it decomposes after the tree dies. However, if the wood is turned into wood products, the carbon stays there. Therefore, it is important for the conservation of this carbon stock to develop long-lived wood products that can be easily used again (recycling, heating, etc.) once they reach the end of their useful life.

In addition, using wood products to replace materials such as concrete or steel reduces the use of high-carbon materials while using materials from a sustainable resource. That is the substitution principle. It is considered in carbon accounting to be a carbon sequestration stream.

These three elements, forests, wood products and the substitution principle, are levers of action in the fight against climate change.
By integrating these three elements, we can determine the total carbon budget of the forest sector. Thus, we need to best conserve existing reservoirs (living biomass, dead biomass, wood products, etc.) while stimulating vegetation growth and the substitution principle using wood products to maintain a flow of carbon sequestration from the atmosphere to our forest sector.

The issue is all the more complex because climate change will gradually disrupt forests and change management practices. That is the role of research: to develop adaptation and mitigation strategies based on robust studies on all facets of Québec’s forests.

1 Mitigation (of climate change):
A human intervention to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (GHG) (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018).
2 Adaptation:
In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects. (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018).
3 Biomass:
Living or recently dead organic material (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018).
The total quantity, usually expressed as weight, of specified organisms (or organic material) in a given area or volume of habitat. (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.)
4 Photosynthesis:
The process (or series of processes) by which the energy of light absorbed by chlorophyll is utilized by plants for the synthesis of complex organic compounds from carbon dioxide, with the accompanying oxidation of water to form oxygen.(Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.).
5 Decomposition:
The action or process of decomposing, separation or resolution (of anything) into its constituent elements. (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.)
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