Safety, sustainability, and self-sufficiency: The year in Canadian forestry

by: Derek Nighbor.

Safety, sustainability, and self-sufficiency: The year in Canadian forestry

Derek Nighbor is President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, a voice for Canada’s wood, pulp, and paper producers nationally and internationally in government, trade, and environmental affairs.

To say that COVID-19 has defined much of what we experienced in 2020 would be the understatement of the century. As we look forward to putting 2020 in the rear-view mirror, I would be remiss in doing my annual look back if I did not share our deep appreciation for the incredible efforts and sacrifices of Canada’s front-line health-care workers and first responders, and our sympathies to the over 13,600 Canadian families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

The struggle for all of us to find our way started when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in early March. Not long after, Canada’s forest-sector leadership moved swiftly to work with our partners in government, labour, and across the supply chain to ensure we kept: essential products moving, our workers and their families safe, and the Canada-U.S. border open to trade.

The federal government rightly declared that Canadian forest-sector workers were essential. We stepped up to ensure that Canadians could get the sustainably sourced, forest-based products they depended on during the pandemic. Things like lumber and wood products for construction, as well as pulp for medical masks, hospital gowns, toilet paper, and sanitary wipes, have rarely been in greater demand.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, the forest sector’s role in the manufacture of personal protective equipment came into clear focus. In early April, when U.S. President Donald Trump stopped a shipment of 3M masks from entering Canada, it became clear that premium reinforced pulp from Canada’s northern forests was a key ingredient in those medical masks, raising questions about why we aren’t doing more to leverage our renewable, homegrown resources to provide for Canadians at a time of urgent need.

The federal government quickly turned to leaders in Canadian-forestry innovation at FPInnovations to work on a COVID response project to develop a biodegradable, sustainable filter for single-use face masks made from local, eco-friendly solutions. This made-in-Canada innovation is now in its second phase, and showcases not only the power and nimbleness of Canadian know-how in the forest-sector innovation, but also the opportunity to do more with Canadian-made forest products. My hope for 2021 is that we continue to learn from the lessons of the pandemic in order to do more to provide for Canadians with sustainable Canadian resources.

Today, the twin threats of the pandemic and climate change, with the accompanying economic stressors, are enough to test anyone’s mettle. Canada’s forest sector is resilient, but the COVID crisis has made an already difficult time even more challenging for many forestry families, businesses, and communities. The softwood lumber dispute with the United States continues to be a drag, with over $4.3 billion (and counting) currently held by the U.S. Treasury. This is money we can’t use to invest in our workforce, make capital improvements, advance product research and innovation, or support export-market development. The increased demand for lumber due to a surge in home-renovation projects, plus a strong North American housing market, has been welcome news, but for many who work in pulp and paper, the market continues to struggle.

Despite the challenges, we’re excited by the potential of our sector and its workforce to help drive a green and inclusive economic recovery. We were proud to see Canada’s forestry workers recognized in the federal government’s recent speech from the throne as leaders in the fight against climate change and the move to rebuild our economy.

To that end, the Forest Products Association of Canada recently published Innovative, Sustainable, Resilient: Recommendations from Canada’s Forest Sector to Drive Economic Recovery and a Net-Zero Carbon Future. This report captures our unique ability to drive Canada’s post-pandemic economic recovery while providing solutions to build an even more sustainable and lower-carbon economy.

This year, advances were also made in the use of wood and new mass timber projects in construction, not only in Canada, but around the world. While architects, engineers, and urban planners are increasingly recognizing the sustainability of these options, the Canadian Wood Council is working with technical experts to evolve the National Building Code of Canada to provide safe, effective, and wood-construction alternatives that are greenhouse-gas-efficient.

Whether Canada’s forest-products sector is: innovating to keep people safe, helping build a lower-carbon economy, or creating jobs for working families, we see an opportunity to accelerate change and advance a recovery that leaves no one behind.

We were pleased to see the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers stand with us when it pledged this fall to increase awareness of the importance of Canada’s world-leading approach to sustainable forest management, and the opportunity to better leverage Canadian forests, forestry workers, and forest products to build a lower-carbon economy.

This year brought with it the biggest health and economic crisis of our lifetimes, underscoring the greatest strengths and vulnerabilities of our country. For the forest sector, 2021 opens a window of opportunity to develop a long-term plan to accelerate innovation in the forest bio-economy and forestry clean tech, make more forest-based products here at home, expand export markets, build bigger and better with Canadian wood, keep communities safer from fire, and get more Canadians working.

Bring on the new year. We are ready to hit the ground running.

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