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Climate agreement inspires demand for clear definition of 'forest degradation' in Canada

Seven environmental groups are calling on the Canadian government to define 'forest degradation' using the best available science.
Clear cut logging operations in Vancouver Island's Klanawa Valley is considered forest degradation because the land has not been permanently converted to another use.

Seven environmental groups are calling on the Canadian government to adopt a definition of “forest degradation” that includes “any reduction in a forest’s ecological integrity” caused by human activity. 

The call comes a day after countries of the world signed a new draft agreement to combat climate change and signal an “end to fossil fuels.” 

The revised global Stocktake, signed Dec. 13 at COP28 in Dubai, stated that achieving the current global goal of halting global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius (ideally 1.5 C) can in part be achieved by “enhanced efforts towards halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation by 2030.”

Forest degradation is widely acknowledged to cover areas where human activity has caused damage to a forest’s native species, structure and function, and its ability to clean water and store carbon. Unlike deforestation, however, degradation means the land hasn’t been converted into some other use.

Jennifer Skene, a policy manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said there has been unprecedented ambition from policymakers, investors and others when it comes to halting and reversing deforestation and forest degradation around the world.  

“Canada has unfortunately been active internationally in opposing these efforts,” said Skene.

“The international community can no longer afford Canada acting as a laggard.” 

Canada’s government is currently leading an effort to create a domestic definition of “forest degradation” Skene and others worry might be used to circumvent new European Union regulations meant to limit the import of forestry products linked to the practice. 

In November, a spokesperson for Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson told Glacier Media the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers — which involves Wilkinson and 13 provincial and territorial forests ministers — is working toward “a definition framework that is scientifically credible, internationally acceptable, culturally sensitive, objectively measurable and transparent.”

“The concept of forest degradation is complex, with wide-ranging effects and affects multiple forest attributes, services or species,” spokesperson said in the lead-up to COP28.

In a joint position statement seen by Glacier Media, the NRDC — along with David Suzuki Foundation, Nature Canada, Nature Québec,, Wildlands League and WWF-Canada — said forest degradation has continued in Canadian forests “with insufficient government acknowledgement, scrutiny or recourse.”

“Canadian policymakers appear to assume, without peer reviewed scientific evidence, that, either naturally or with human intervention, forests will eventually recover after industrial logging, either ignoring or denying the impact of forest degradation,” read the statement. 

“This stance is insufficient given the near-term action necessary to avert climate and biodiversity catastrophes, and ignores the significant long-term or permanent consequences resulting from industrial logging.”

The groups are calling on the Canadian government to define forest degradation based on seven indicators, three of which require new technology, data or knowledge to measure. Those indicators include: 

  • Declining populations of indicator species, including forest-dwelling species at risk;
  • Changes to forest age class compared to pre-industrial condition;
  • Changes to tree species composition, compared to pre-industrial condition;
  • Fragmentation of intact forest;
  • Reduction in provision of ecosystem services;
  • Change in ecological integrity or forest productivity; and,
  • Loss of existing carbon stocks or carbon storage capacity.