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Japan gets mixed messages on B.C. forest products

Environmentalists, forest industry held dueling Japan junkets recently
Ben Parfitt, right, and Michelle Connolly, seated, meet with a member of Japan's House of Representatives.

B.C. Forests Minister Bruce Ralston recently returned from a trade mission to Japan, where he and B.C. forestry companies were promoting B.C. wood products, but environmentalists from B.C. had already beaten them there to do the opposite.

Pre-emptively, Conservation North director Michelle Connolly and Ben Parfitt, a policy analyst for Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, had already travelled to Japan the week prior to Ralston’s trip, at the invitation of Japanese environmental groups, where they urged companies and policymakers to stop buying wood pellets and lumber from B.C. because the province still allows the logging of primary forests.

“Forestry interests promote the idea that B.C. forests are managed sustainably, when they are not,” Connolly said in a press release. “We were invited to Japan to tell the public and key decision-makers about  what’s happening to at-risk forests and species in this province.”

Japan is B.C.’s second most valuable export market for forestry products, Ralston said, so any boycott of B.C. forestry products in Japan would be “devastating."

“This would be a devastating blow to the forest industry in British Columbia and lead to a huge job loss,” he told BIV News.

Ralston said B.C. exported $1.45 billion worth of forest products to Japan last year, about $741 million of which would be softwood lumber.

Japan is also a major buyer of B.C. wood pellets, which are made mostly from wood waste. Japan uses wood pellets as an alternative to thermal coal for power generation. 

Although burning wood pellets produces CO2, it is considered to be carbon neutral, since regrowing trees eventually take up the CO2 produced in combustion, whereas coal is non-renewable.

The wood pellet industry in B.C. uses sawmill and harvest waste – waste that is otherwise burned anyway in slash piles. But Connolly and Parfitt say wood pellet producers in B.C. also harvest live trees from primary forests for the express purpose of feeding wood pellet plants.

While in Japan, Connolly and Parfitt met with “pellet financiers,” elected officials and media. They also met with the Sumitomo Corporation, which owns the Pacific Bioenergy plant in Prince George. The plant was permanently shut down in February, 2023.

“B.C. is a high-risk place from which to source pellets,” Parfitt reportedly told investors and bioindustry officials in Japan, according to a news release. “Logging companies have cut down too much forest too quickly. Sawmills, pulp mills and even some pellet mills have closed because too little primary forest is left.” 

While some trees from logging operations do end up being used to make wood pellets, they are generally of no value to sawmills or pulp mills. These trees are either below pulp log quality or “bush grind” which would otherwise end up burned in slash piles.

In 2022, the Wood Pellet Association of Canada issued a report that found that 85 per cent of the inputs of wood pellets in B.C. is waste from sawmills. About 11 per cent comes from low-quality logs that neither sawmills nor pulp mills want, and four per cent from “bush grind” (also known as hog fuel).

The B.C. Ministry of Forests says pellet mills pay about $35 per cubic metre for logs, whereas a sawlog used to make lumber typically fetches $149 per cubic metre.

“It would be uneconomical to divert quality sawlogs into wood pellets,” the ministry said in an email to BIV News.

Connolly said she got no firm commitments from Japanese companies or officials that they would stop buying B.C. wood products, but said “we put it on their radar.”

“They were all pretty incredulous about what’s happening in B.C., based on what we were telling them, and they committed to looking into it,” she told BIV News.

“They just finished building a whole new pellet plant in Sendai, so I think this is something they think they’ve committed to for the long-term, and our purpose was to tell them that pellets coming from B.C. are fundamentally unsustainable because we still log primary forests in B.C. and it’s just a high-risk environment from which to source them because sawmills are closing down," she said.

Connolly said it’s not just wood pellets, but any wood product from B.C. that comes from primary forest, that she wants to see countries like Japan to stop buying.

But it does not appear Japan plans to stop buying B.C. wood products. Ralston said there is a shift going on in Japan, however. With its aging population, Japan is building fewer homes with lumber.

"The opportunity for future growth in wood structures is in the institutional sector," Ralston said. "They view wood, rightly, as a low-carbon product, embodying carbon and all those good environmental attributes, so they're anxious to build with wood."

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