Concern rising over increasing carbon emissions from Canada’s forest fires

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Concern rising over increasing carbon emissions from Canada’s forest fires
A B.C. Sierra Club member says carbon emissions from wildfires are “a major problem because we cannot continue to ignore these emissions.” – Nov 9, 2023

Carbon emissions.

You can’t go a week in today’s news world without hearing about greenhouse gases and how governments around the world are trying to reduce carbon emissions.

According to the United States Protection Agency, the main human activity that emits carbon dioxide is the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) for energy and transportation.

In British Columbia, around 62 million tonnes of greenhouse gases were emitted in 2021. It’s a reduction from previous years, such as 63.8 million tonnes in 2007 and 66.2 million tonnes in 2018.

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However, B.C.’s figures don’t include one massive item: forest fires, which create an unbelievably large amount of carbon emissions.

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It’s estimated that B.C. forest fires produced 170 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2017 and 196 million tonnes in 2018.

In Europe, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said that carbon emissions from wildfires across Canada from Jan. 1 to July 31 totalled 290 megatonnes – more than double the previous record for the year as a whole.

It’s thought that around 40 megatonnes of that total came from B.C.’s wildfires.

Notably, those totals do not include carbon emissions from August and September.

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The province does not officially count carbon emissions from wildfires, saying wildfires are natural events, though it does know that climate change is intensifying their impact.

However, the province isn’t ignoring the issue and it does give estimates on carbon emissions from wildfires.

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“The United Nations framework convention on climate change dictates that non-human related activities are not reported in greenhouse gas emission inventories,” the Ministry of Environment said.

“In B.C., forest fire emissions are included in our provincial greenhouse gas Inventory for transparency; however, they are not counted towards the reported totals by either B.C. or Canada, in line with international practice.”

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In 2012, the province estimated that 13.5 megatonnes of carbon emissions were released from wildfires. That dropped to 3.3 megatonnes in 2013, then jumped to 57.4 in 2014 and 42.7 in 2015 before dropping again to 13.1 in 2016.

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But in 2017, carbon emissions spiked to 169.8, then 197.7 in 2018 before freefalling to 4.0 in 2019 and 3.3 in 2020.

In 2021, wildfire carbon emissions were estimated at 133.2 megatonnes.

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Notably, the province does not count human-caused slash-pile burning in its carbon emission totals.

More information about B.C.’s carbon emissions is available online.

One report, issued by Nature Canada, says Canada has created accounting and regulatory loopholes for the logging industry’s carbon impacts. That report is available online.

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At the provincial political level, the MLA for the Shuswap, Greg Kyllo, discussed wildfires during a recent debate about Bill 31, the Emergency and Disaster Management Act.

“We already have a failing forestry sector that’s really struggling with the lack of fibre,” Kyllo said.

“And for those forest companies that have a reduced cut tenure available to them, to see literally millions of hectares of fibre burn up is extremely troubling.”

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“All resources in British Columbia, the transportation sector, oil and gas — 60 million tonnes. In 2021, 190 million tonnes are estimated to have gone into the atmosphere just from the wildfires alone.

“If that alone is not a reason for government to take quick and prompt action to put these fires out, I don’t know what is.”

While arguments can be made for and against including carbon emissions from wildfires in provincial totals, a member of B.C.’s Sierra Club says the bigger focus should be on cutting down man-made totals.

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“Until about 20 years ago, our forests helped us sequester more carbon compared to what is being released from forests. But this has changed,” said Jens Wieting, the club’s senior forest and climate campaigner.

“Now we have very high carbon losses from the forests in B.C., and it’s caused by a combination of destructive logging practices combined with climate-change impacts like droughts and fires.”

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Wieting says the impacts are so high that “carbon emissions connected to forests are close to three times higher compared to all our other emissions from burning fossil fuels.”

He says those wildfire emission totals are hidden in B.C.’s accounting, “and it’s a major problem because we cannot continue to ignore these emissions.”

“(The emissions) are now so huge that it’s important for countries like Canada and provinces like B.C. to develop forest carbon-emission reports so that we have better information to help inform climate action to protect more old-growth forests, to improve forest management, restore some of the forests that are very damaged and to improve the ability of forests to hold and sequester more carbon,” Wieting said.

Looking at B.C.’s wildfire data, Wieting says a decade ago, having a few hundred thousand hectares burned provincewide would have been a shocking statistic.

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“Since 2017, we have seen several years with more than one million hectares burned (provincewide),” said Wieting, adding that 2023 will be close to three million.

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“I’m afraid, based on the global trend of warming, we are really looking at dangerous limits and more impacts. It shows that we have to step up to the plate and take stronger climate action.

“We have to speed up phasing out fossil fuels and we have to protect more forests and dramatically change how we manage forests.”

Old-growth forests, he stated, should be prioritized, as they are carbon-rich and resilient and stand the best chance of surviving climate-change pressures.

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He also said some forests need regular fires, and that it’s possible grasslands could replace forests in some areas.

“We have to plan very carefully to protect those forests that can withstand climate change impacts and to help the transition to some ecosystems where this is unavoidable.

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“We have to leave as many trees as possible standing so that they can continue to sequester carbon and provide the countless benefits — from reducing heat, keeping water in the landscape, stopping erosion and flooding — that they provide.”

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