The vast expanses of pine, spruce, and larch forests that cover much of Canada have been highly valued for generations.
These forests don’t just provide habitats for numerous species. They also serve as significant carbon sinks by absorbing more greenhouse gases than they emit.
However, this summer witnessed devastating wildfires that consumed a massive continuous stretch of woodland. The fires released around 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
According to experts, the emissions from Canada’s unprecedented wildfire season are likely three times the country’s annual carbon footprint. As a result, the wildfires have made Canadian CO2 emissions 300% worse than they otherwise would be.
This situation has raised concerns about whether environmentalists have overlooked forest fires in their race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The total emissions from these wildfires far surpass Canada’s annual economic emissions of 670 million tons.
It’s important to note that the emissions figures are preliminary. This is due to the ongoing nature of the fires and the challenges in accurately assessing the burned areas across the country.
During an event in New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the wildfires to advocate for Canada’s carbon tax. He emphasized that ambitious collective action to combat climate change is now crucial for survival, as recognized by the frontline first responders.
However, when the final count is measured in the upcoming years, Canada’s Paris agreement commitments will not include the emissions from wildfires. Moreover, as the trees killed by fire decompose, more carbon will be released in the coming decades.
For years, climate scientists have feared that much more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere than people are aware of. The Canadian wildfires have increased those fears.
From carbon sink to carbon source
In 2018, the governing Liberal Party made a promise to plant 2 billion trees within a decade, a goal that seems unlikely to be achieved.
At that time, the federal government presented this objective as a means of eliminating 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. This number is a tiny fraction of the emissions from this year’s wildfires.
The way in which forests have become Canada’s number-one emitter has completely changed the narrative about forests and climate change.
In the 1990s, Canada’s managed forest was able to remove an average of 160 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. However, decades of large-scale wildfires and insect-induced tree mortality have transformed the boreal forest from a carbon sink to a carbon source.
Western regions of the boreal forest have already experienced the drying up of bogs and wetlands, resulting in previously humid areas of the forest becoming parched. With drier and hotter conditions already leading to larger fires, experts are warning that ecosystems are entering a positive feedback loop where fires contribute to even more severe wildfires.
Canada’s record-breaking fire season
This summer has witnessed record wildfire devastation in Canada. A total of 6,369 wildfires have devastated almost 44 million acres of woodland. This makes 2023 more than twice as bad as any other fire season in Canadian history.
Additionally, over 200,000 residents have been forced to evacuate their homes.
The size of the fires is also a cause for alarm among experts, as two of them have surpassed 1 million hectares. The majority of the burned land across the country can be attributed to only a few wildfires. These fires have been uncontrollable due to their intensity, speed, and heat.
The extensive wildfires that swept through a significant portion of Canada can be attributed partly to a history of inadequate forest management. The logging industry’s focus on valuable yet highly flammable conifers has gradually transformed the landscape.
Lack of prescribed burns practiced by Indigenous communities and decades of fire suppression have resulted in the accumulation of flammable deadwood on the forest floor.
Canadian environmental scientist Werner Kurz told The Guardian that the changing climate has made it difficult to defend against the conditions that fuel wildfires. In remote northern areas like the Northwest Territories, Kurz blames climate change alone for the blazes.
A wildfire in the Northwest Territories in mid-August.
The aftermath of the wildfires
While Canada’s largest fires are too massive and intense to fight, the federal government has recently announced a substantial investment in firefighting tools and technology to aid in the response.
Experts have also called for fundamental changes in forest management at the provincial and municipal levels. These changes include creating more fragmented landscapes, implementing more controlled burns, and transitioning from combustible conifers to fire-resistant broadleaf species.
Last summer, the Canadian wildfires caused major smoke pollution in eastern US cities. This has sparked broader discussions about the interconnected nature of natural phenomena and the distribution of responsibility for them.
Some argue that Canada should report and take responsibility for the wildfire emissions. Others highlight that this is a global issue and that Canada’s contribution to climate change is relatively small.
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