I am sitting here under a smoke advisory. I am in southern Ontario, about 200 kilometres from the nearest forest fire but the air is hazy, there is smoke in every breath, our windows are closed and the air is being filtered. I can only imagine what it is like for those on the front lines, living in the danger zones or working as firefighters trying to restrain the inferno. 

There are the obvious costs to families forced to evacuate because of forest fires—homes lost, health compromised, communities hammered. But there is also the less obvious cost. The fires, aided and abetted by a climate reaching tipping points, are spewing millions of tons of green house gases into the atmosphere which, in turn, makes the climate even more hazardous. 

But as I sit here reading the smoke advisories, I’m also reading a press release from the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources who on May 31st was in northwestern Ontario to announce a new government program whose purpose, stripped of all the bafflegab, is to burn more wood. 

Through a series of federal and provincial sleight of hands biomass energy (burning wood or turning wood into gas to burn, or turning wood into char to burn) is considered a renewable energy source. Bizarre as it sounds, renewable energy sources are wind, water, solar and burning wood. 

Admittedly Ontario isn’t alone in this fiction. There is still a widely held, although diminishing view, that the GHG emissions from burning wood can be offset by the carbon dioxide sequestered by trees planted to replace those burned. This supposed carbon neutrality assumes that forests are carbon sinks. Instead, we now know Canada’s forests are carbon sources. 

Those in support of wood-based bio energy also assume that the biomass comes from resources that are developed sustainably and when only wood residues and waste are used. We know that is not the case.

The Minister of Natural Resources was announcing funding of about $ 20 million under the Ford government’s Forest Biomass Action Plan. 

The Forest Biomass Action Plan is staggering in its level of greenwashing and obfuscation.  The Ford government has taken a climate threatening practice —burning wood to make energy— and has transformed it into a pillar of the new green economy.

The Forest Biomass Action plan describes the initiative as “helping to reduce emissions and addressing climate change.” And argues it will, “position Ontario as a leader in the growing circular and green economy.”

The description of the program makes it easy to forget that they are primarily talking about generating more greenhouse gas by burning wood. 

The Biomass Action plan makes the point that “biomass innovations are a sustainable alternative to carbon intensive products and an exciting new frontier for Ontario’s Forest sector.” 

But the Action plan has little to do with a sustainable future and a lot to do with cutting down more trees and supporting large forest companies.

The first in a list of the action plan’s objectives is this: “The Forest Biomass Program will support projects to harvest more wood from Crown forests…” Throughout the backgrounder, are references to “underutilized species” and “uncommercial trees.” But whether a tree is uncommercial or from an underutilized species, if it continues to grow it is sequestering carbon. The Action Plan also includes a completely cynical effort to broaden the definition of green hydrogen—hydrogen created by using solar and wind renewable energy— to include hydrogen created by burning wood.

There are clearly opportunities and benefits, innovations and breakthroughs that can occur from rethinking our approach to forests, wood harvesting and biomass. There is an international scramble amongst countries to emerge as major players in the new bio-economy. Forests can support bio-diversity, pharmaceuticals and medicines, fibres, and bio plastics. There is a pressing need to use our forest resources more sustainably and to produce less wood waste. 

But in Ford’s Ontario we have been forced to think about the balance of probabilities. Is the action plan about using wood residues and waste more effectively and seeing intact forests as a resource or is it about more clear cutting, the threat of deforestation and burning more wood?

As the Action Plan notes “In Ontario, the most common use of forest biomass is for bioenergy in the form of heat, power, and combined heat and power (CHP)…Ontario is also home to manufacturers which make wood pellets and wood chips for use in domestic, commercial, institutional, and industrial heating systems.”

A few years ago, a letter signed by 800 scientists to the European Union made the point.  “Burning wood is inefficient and therefore emits far more carbon than burning fossil fuels for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced.”

The EU has  modified its Renewable Energy Directive to tighten the sustainability criteria and prohibit the use of biomass from primary and highly biodiverse forests.

A few years ago, a group of 500 scientists urged world leaders to end the subsidies for biomass because those subsidies undermined climate goals and biodiversity.

A few years ago, researchers started providing the evidence that the health impacts of burning wood were more consequential than burning coal.

This week as fires burn across the country the Ontario government is encouraging us to burn more wood. The announcement is the latest in a long string of Ford’s bad energy choices.

David Robertson is a member of the Education Committee as well as the Ontario Project Group and the Campaign and Platform Committee of SCAN!.

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