The forestry sector says it’s transforming amid Canada’s shift to a low-carbon economy.
Bob Larocque, the senior vice-president of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), said the industry has begun to diversify its products to develop more environmentally-friendly materials. The result, he said, has been the emergence of new sector of bio-economy jobs.
“It’s a brand new field,” he said. “It’s actually being applied and you can actually get a good job out of it.”
The Liberal government has prioritized carbon emission reductions since adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015, which aims to limit the global average temperate rise to only 1.5 C. To meet the targets, the government imposed a national carbon tax which increases the cost of fossil fuels in order to reduce consumption. In the 2019 federal election, the party campaigned on net-zero emissions by 2050, despite being behind on their targets to meet 30 per cent reduction by 2030.
Larocque said Canada’s forestry sector has always been environmentally friendly. The industry is required by law to replant all the trees they harvest to ensure sustainable forests, benefitting air quality and biodiversity. But, he said the industry has begun looking at what they use in their products and making them differently to use all the resources “with much less waste.”
For example, trees were previously brought to a sawmill and cut to make wood for furniture or houses. Now, Larocque said mills can make engineered wood which uses all the residue from a tree to make stronger pieces of wood. He said engineered wood like the cross-laminated timber (CLT) replaces steel and concrete, which are higher fossil-fuel based as they require more energy to produce.
CLT is being used in tall wood buildings, as seen as in the University of British Columbia’s Brock Commons residence in Vancouver, which, at 18 storeys high, was the tallest mass timber building in the world from its creation in 2017 until it was overtaken by Mjøstårnet in Norway earlier this year.
Larocque also said industry development of biofuels, biomaterials, and biochemicals provides an opportunity to address climate change. Biofuels — fuel made from harvested trees residues designed to replace gasoline, diesel fuel and coal — reduce emissions as they come from renewable energy sources which have lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels. Meanwhile, biomaterials called lignin, which is the substance that gives trees strength, could be used in adhesives as an alternative to petroleum, which fuels climate change as it releases toxins into the air during its extraction process.
Biochemicals can also be used a substitute for petroleum. In Toronto, Natures Affinity, a company which aims to reduce petroleum-based plastics, developed BioBinder, a biochemical made entirely from tree products. The organic binder can be used to replace petroleum-based plastics in plastic pots and food packaging.
As the sector diversifies its products, Larocque said the slow growth of jobs seen over the last five years will rapidly increase.
To generate awareness on bio-economy jobs, FPAC created The Greenest Workforce, an online tool which shows jobs current jobs across Canada and provides labour market information with a projection over five years. Job-searches can input a postal code and see what positions are available within a 200 km radius.
Stéphane Renou, the CEO of FP Innovations, a not-for-profit specializing in forest operations, said research on the forestry sector’s potential in the bio-economy began years ago, and now the transition from research to market products has begun. He said entire industry is looking for the people “that can help the industry transform,” with openings for advanced materials scientists, advanced chemists, chemical engineers, and more.
Developing talent will be crucial for Canada to remain competitive in the field, said Renou, adding that Canada has enough universities to educate students at home. He said the forestry industry has struggled to attract talent because people don’t view it as a high-tech industry.
“I think one of the challenge industry has is to attract people to the forestry industry to make them realize: this is the future of the bio-economy, this is the future of the fight against global warming,” he said.
As the sector’s employment need grows, Larocque said there’s a thee-part responsibility to invest in education. The government needs to invest and support education while educators invest in curriculum on low-carbon economies, and the industry develop work-learning activities to give students hands-on experience.
Investment in education will be crucial for the sector to remain globally competitive. Larocque said Canada is in “race” to a bio-economy with Sweden and Finland, who have similar forestry sectors to Canada, but remain ahead in investment in education.
Larocque also said FPAC has been working with universities to develop “climate courses” that study the impact of climate change on the sector as sustainability conversations that use to be about water and air quality now incorporate evaluations on carbon risks, creating “a new skill set.”
“Our world is changing,” he said. “Climate is going to become so much more important in every decision making across our industry.”