As wildfires burned a record 18.5 million hectares across Canada this year, greenhouse gas emissions from those fires also soared to record heights, with preliminary estimates indicating they could be double or even triple the emissions from industrial activity.
But when Ottawa releases its annual update on GHGs in 2024, those wildfire emissions won’t be part of the tally. In keeping with international reporting guidelines, Canada’s yearly National Inventory Report highlights human-caused, or anthropogenic, emissions rather than natural disturbances, such as insect outbreaks or wildfires. Wildfire emissions are included in that report, but as an information item, not part of the tally Canada presents when tracking its progress in reducing emissions.
But the magnitude of this year’s wildfire emissions – and growing evidence of how climate change and wildfires are connected – is resulting in calls for more transparency in how they are reported and urgent action to try to keep them in check.
As of early October, 18.5 million hectares had burned across the country, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre Inc. Preliminary estimates from Natural Resources Canada show emissions from those fires amounted to roughly 2,400 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent – more than triple the 670 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent reported as Canada’s total emissions for 2021 in the most recent National Inventory Report.
“Clearly, those emissions have a huge impact on the atmosphere,” said Lori Daniels, a forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. “I hope this season will really inspire, for federal, provincial and territorial governments, a significant investment into addressing this problem.”
The reporting regime developed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change requires countries to report on human-caused emissions, Carolyn Svonkin, press secretary for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, said in an e-mail.
“This focus is crucial, as it is anthropogenic emissions that are ultimately within our control in terms of mitigating climate change,” she said.
Canada reports emissions from natural disturbances, including wildfires, in its annual National Inventory Report as well as its annual State of Canada’s Forests report, Ms. Svonkin said. But “distinguishing between human activities and natural disturbances allows us to evaluate how management activities are affecting forest emissions and removals.”
Because wildfire emissions can be so variable, adding them to the annual tallies prepared for UN updates would mask the picture of what is happening with human-caused emissions, said Kimberley Leach, a principal with the Office of the Auditor-General of Canada.
But there’s room for improvement, in the form of greater transparency, she said.
“It’s through transparency and information that we can actually define the best policies – and have Canadians and politicians and industry understand what they need to do to reduce emissions,” Ms. Leach said.
She worked on an April report, released by Canada’s Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco, that called on Ottawa to communicate “the full picture of how Canadian forests affect carbon levels in our atmosphere.”
Large variations in emissions from forest fires and other disturbances year over year make it difficult to clarify the role of human activities in the overall data, the report said. It also raised concerns about logging emissions, saying they were not clearly accounted for, and about Ottawa’s 2 Billion Trees program, saying it was unlikely to hit its goals. (The federal program aims to plant two billion trees over a decade, from 2021 to 2031, to help combat climate change.)
Concerns about wildfire emissions aren’t new.
Mike Flannigan is a professor at B.C.’s Thompson Rivers University who studies wildfires and climate change.
In the 1990s, he was working with the federal government on negotiations related to the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement meant to set countries on a path to reducing GHG emissions. Amid talk of including Canadian forests as carbon sinks when calculating the country’s carbon balance, he advised against it.
“Even back then, there were enough of us saying, between pests and fire – and we expected particularly fire to increase – that the odds were weighted very heavily that our forests would be carbon sources,” Dr. Flannigan said.
That has turned out to be the case; in Mr. DeMarco’s report, he noted: “Canada’s forests are becoming a net source of emissions because of forest fires and disturbances caused by insect outbreaks.”
The increasing emissions from wildfires, in Canada and elsewhere, underscore the urgency to reduce fossil-fuel emissions, Dr. Flannigan said, adding that “the atmosphere doesn’t care” where GHG emissions come from.
The federal government in June launched a National Adaptation Strategy, saying every dollar spent on mitigation measures saves up to $15. Wildfire-related initiatives in that strategy include the Wildfire Resilient Futures Initiative, a $285-million program focused on community prevention and mitigation. Natural Resources Canada is also working on mapping and technology projects, including the WildfireSat initiative, to better understand wildfires and their impact on carbon emissions, and working with Canadian and American scientists at a wildfire and carbon project based at the University of Victoria, Ms. Svonkin said.
Forests and wetlands are critical carbon warehouses but also bulwarks for biodiversity, water quality and human health, Dr. Daniels noted. At COP28, she said she’d like to see evidence that Canada will meet its commitments to reduce GHG emissions.
Beyond COP28, she’ll be watching for investments in forest health and wildfire mitigation through measures including prescribed burns.
“We have all the money in the world for the reactive response, because it’s an emergency situation. But we’ve been very slow on the uptake in investing in proactive mitigation,” she said.
Dr. Daniels was referring to B.C., where several reports in B.C., including a 2018 review of a severe wildfire season the previous year, have recommended urgent action to mitigate wildfire risks.
But the same picture holds for other parts of the country.
A 2016 review of the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy, first developed in 2006, found spending over the first decade of the program had lagged projections by nearly $1-billion. The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers in 2021 released a five-year action plan to implement the strategy, saying “Canada now regularly experiences large, catastrophic wildland fire events, placing Canadian lives and livelihoods at risk.”
Fire suppression costs in Canada over the last decade have ranged from about $800-million to $1.5-billion a year, according to Natural Resources Canada.
Editor’s note: The online version of this article has been corrected to say that Carolyn Svonkin is press secretary for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.