Canada’s annual climate emissions inventory won’t count smoke from a record year of wildfires, but it will list forests as carbon sinks—despite concerns that global heating has made them drier, more flammable, and increasingly, a source of emissions.
“It is crucial that Canada report carbon emissions and removals from natural disturbances in a balanced way, as required by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Michael Polanyi, policy and campaign manager at Nature Canada, told The Energy Mix. “Since Canada doesn’t count emissions from wildfires, it must also not take credit for carbon removals from regrowth of trees after wildfires.”
But “unfortunately, that is exactly what Canada is doing.”
Polanyi was referring to the accounting in Ottawa’s annual greenhouse gas emissions update, due to be submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2024.
This year, 18.5 million hectares of Canadian forest burned in a record year for wildfires in Canada, with estimates suggesting their emissions neared double or triple Canada’s usual industrial emissions, reports the Globe and Mail. But rather than counting them towards the country’s emissions total, the inventory will only flag them as an information item.
Government officials say that’s because wildfire emissions are variable and outside human control, so including them would obscure emissions and removals that result directly from land management.
“Distinguishing between human activities and natural disturbances allows us to evaluate how management activities are affecting forest emissions and removals,” Carolyn Svonkin, press secretary for Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, told the Globe.
But Polanyi said many other countries do count wildfire emissions, adding to their motivation to invest in wildfire prevention. And wildfires are partly attributable to humans—directly through accidental fires and indirectly through climate change, which is making forests drier and more flammable. Scientists are now concerned about the transformation of Canada’s boreal forests from carbon sink to carbon source, meaning that they’ll produce net emissions rather than net emission reductions—a tipping point that will generate a feedback loop within which climate change and wildfires aggravate each other into ever-worsening outcomes.
“The rationale for counting emissions from wildfires in Canada’s totals includes the fact that these emissions, like emissions from burning fossil fuels, are contributing to planetary warming and require attention and action,” Polanyi said.
Plus, Canada does count carbon stored by forests that risks being released when burned—a concern dating back to the 1990s.
“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,” said Dr. Mike Flannigan, a Thompson Rivers University professor who studies wildfires and climate change.
Flannigan pointed to a recent report that states Canada’s forests are “becoming a net source of emissions because of forest fires and disturbances caused by insect outbreaks.” Prepared by Canada’s commissioner of environment and sustainable development, Jerry DeMarco, the report urged Ottawa to be more transparent in communicating forest emissions and Canada’s progress toward forest-related climate policy goals.
Canada’s current method of accounting for carbon in forests also gives a false picture of the carbon neutrality of the logging industry, resulting in distorted climate and forest policy decisions, Polyani said.
Given the arguments on both sides, Nature Canada does not take a position on whether wildfire emissions should be counted in the inventory, he added. “However, we do feel strongly that emissions and removals from natural disturbances should be reported in a balanced way.”