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Indicator: Carbon emissions and removals

In 2017, total net emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2) from Canada’s managed forests (forest lands managed for timber production) were about 217 million tonnes (Mt).

Total net emissions are calculated by adding emissions/removals caused by human activities in Canada’s managed forests to emissions/removals caused by large-scale natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests.

Human activities in Canada’s managed forests accounted for removing about 20 Mt CO2e in 2017, while large-scale natural disturbances accounted for emissions of about 237 Mt CO2e, resulting in net emissions of 217 Mt CO2e.

Canada’s forests both emit and absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). In any given year, depending on the area of natural disturbances such as forest fires, insect outbreaks and windthrow, Canada’s forests will be either a source or a sink of CO2. Data from 2017 suggests that the forests were a net source of CO2 because of the 1.5 million ha of area burned.

These figures include carbon monoxide emissions as well as emissions in 2017 from harvested wood products manufactured from wood harvested in Canada since 1900. Both types of emissions are reported as separate categories in Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Inventory Report 1990–2017.

  • Forest lands managed for timber production and the emissions from wood products harvested from these lands continue to be an ongoing sink of carbon (20 Mt CO2e in 2017).
  • The area burned in managed forests in Canada in 2017 was 1.5 million ha, about double the area burned in 2016. This resulted in higher emissions than in 2016.
  • Spruce budworm is having an increasingly significant impact in eastern Canada because of the large transfers of live biomass to dead organic matter (DOM) pools, resulting in indirect emissions as the DOM decays over many years.

Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forest: Areas subject to human activities, 1990–2017

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Graph summary

The annual area disturbed by forestry activities generally increased from 1990 to 2003, after which it decreased to 2009, then slightly increased and stabilized to 2017. The net annual greenhouse gas emissions from areas disturbed by forestry activities generally increased from 1990 to 2005, after which it decreased to 2009, then slightly increased and stabilized to 2017.

Graph data
Table below displays the greenhouse gas emissions or removals in Canada’s managed forests due to forest management activities in million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year for each year between 1990 and 2017. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide in Canada’s managed forests for that year, while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forestry activities in Canada’s managed forest in hectares.
Year Area of forestry activities
(hectares)
GHG net emissions
(million tonnes of C02 equivalent per year)
1990 933,628 -80.3
1991 896,372 -85.5
1992 991,588 -75.5
1993 991,406 -67.5
1994 1,041,093 -65.7
1995 1,093,170 -51.1
1996 1,087,802 -58.5
1997 1,148,962 -58.9
1998 1,094,943 -65.0
1999 1,198,215 -53.7
2000 1,253,435 -38.3
2001 1,182,699 -53.5
2002 1,237,086 -38.2
2003 1,228,826 -43.2
2004 1,348,826 -19.0
2005 1,334,949 -12.4
2006 1,219,889 -20.3
2007 1,077,706 -22.6
2008 949,373 -28.1
2009 836,498 -40.0
2010 975,556 -22.4
2011 1,010,823 -22.8
2012 1,024,805 -26.2
2013 1,049,653 -24.5
2014 1,048,488 -24.9
2015 1,056,225 -18.8
2016 1,036,808 -20.1
2017 1,069,323 -19.6

Forest management activities in Canada’s managed forests, such as harvesting, slash pile burning, and regeneration, as well as the use and disposal of harvested wood products, were a net sink of about 20 Mt CO2e in 2017.


Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forest: Areas subject to natural disturbances, 1990–2017

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Graph summary

The area burned has been highly variable over time, with peaks in 1995, 1998, 2002, 2015 and 2017. The area disturbed by insects remained fairly low until 1998, after which it generally increased to 2002, then decreased to 2010, and then has been increasing to present day. The net annual greenhouse gas emissions from areas subject to natural disturbances has been highly variable but generally increasing on average over time, with peaks in 1995, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2011, 2015 and 2017.

Graph data
Table below displays the greenhouse gas emissions or removals in Canada’s managed forests due to natural disturbances in million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year for each year between 1990 and 2017. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide in Canada’s managed forests for that year, while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest disturbed in hectares for each year between 1990 and 2017 by each of two causes: (1) wildfire and (2) insects.
Year Area burned
(hectares)
Area disturbed by insects
(hectares)
GHG net emissions
(million tonnes of C02 equivalent per year)
1990 278,644 442,247 -23.2
1991 583,301 346,556 4.7
1992 107,860 98,699 -47.5
1993 686,300 27,718 1.6
1994 568,968 41,907 13.4
1995 2,273,569 59,997 188.4
1996 638,703 62,680 10.3
1997 173,486 81,698 -37.8
1998 1,607,547 433,362 171.4
1999 644,371 1,473,947 33.6
2000 93,145 2,544,546 -41.9
2001 202,897 3,234,629 -15.7
2002 1,445,685 3,861,216 135.8
2003 767,614 5,263,168 79.1
2004 947,406 1,959,207 134.7
2005 639,617 5,009,788 46.4
2006 662,462 7,384,966 75.2
2007 736,598 6,352,347 81.7
2008 390,212 4,574,926 30.4
2009 379,874 1,842,509 54.8
2010 982,154 1,348,995 121.0
2011 1,108,888 1,523,003 137.7
2012 928,260 2,024,464 114.8
2013 480,146 2,705,182 45.5
2014 1,281,563 3,648,846 170.8
2015 2,048,949 3,668,286 255.6
2016 766,144 3,458,692 97.7
2017 1,475,403 4,190,207 236.9

Natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests resulted in net emissions of about 237 Mt CO2e in 2017. Forest GHG emissions were similar to those in 2015, in large part because of the 1.5 million ha of area burned in 2017.


Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forest: All areas, 1990–2017

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Graph summary

The annual area burned and disturbed by insects and forestry activities are the same as described in the two graphs above. The net annual greenhouse gas emissions from all areas combined has been highly variable but generally increasing on average over time, with peaks in 1995, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2011, 2015 and 2017.

Graph data
Table below displays the greenhouse gas emissions or removals in Canada’s managed forests in million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year for each year between 1990 and 2017. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide in Canada’s managed forests for that year, while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest disturbed in hectares for each year between 1990 and 2016 by each of three causes: (1) forest management, (2) wildfire and (3) insects.
Year Area of forestry activities
(hectares)
Area burned
(hectares)
Area disturbed by insects
(hectares)
GHG net emissions
(million tonnes of C02 equivalent per year)
1990 933,628 278,644 3,567,171 -103.5
1991 896,372 583,301 1,068,104 -80.8
1992 991,588 107,860 118,534 -123.0
1993 991,406 686,300 196,467 -65.9
1994 1,041,093 568,968 343,233 -52.2
1995 1,093,170 2,273,569 444,862 137.3
1996 1,087,802 638,703 257,592 -48.1
1997 1,148,962 173,486 248,173 -96.7
1998 1,094,943 1,607,547 542,304 106.4
1999 1,198,215 644,371 1,625,948 -20.1
2000 1,253,435 93,145 2,744,263 -80.2
2001 1,182,699 202,897 3,895,452 -69.2
2002 1,237,086 1,445,685 5,448,568 97.6
2003 1,228,826 767,614 8,692,480 35.9
2004 1,348,826 947,406 5,775,158 115.7
2005 1,334,949 639,617 9,138,869 34.0
2006 1,219,889 662,462 12,234,676 54.9
2007 1,077,706 736,598 9,954,448 59.1
2008 949,373 390,212 7,833,815 2.4
2009 836,498 379,874 4,752,245 14.7
2010 975,556 982,154 4,586,512 98.6
2011 1,010,823 1,108,888 4,610,864 114.9
2012 1,024,805 928,260 4,171,583 88.5
2013 1,049,653 480,146 5,308,834 21.0
2014 1,048,488 1,281,563 6,972,380 145.9
2015 1,056,225 2,048,949 7,563,633 236.8
2016 1,036,808 766,144 7,245,791 77.6
2017 1,069,323 1,475,403 7,294,195 217.2

The total net emissions and removals from Canada’s managed forests, taking into account both human activities and natural disturbances, were about 217 Mt CO2e (–20 + 237 = 217) in 2017. This includes the emissions in 2017 from wood harvested in Canada since 1900 and wood products used in Canada and abroad.

Why is this indicator important?

  • Carbon as CO2 and as methane (CH4) in the atmosphere are important contributors to global warming.
  • Canada’s forest sector contributes to both emissions and removals of carbon from the atmosphere.

What is the outlook?

  • The impacts of climate change on Canada’s future forest GHG balance are difficult to predict. Regionally, impacts can be both positive (enhanced forest growth and therefore greater carbon sinks) and negative (higher mortality, more forest fires or insect outbreaks). Given the amount of area burned in 2018, especially in British Columbia, we expect 2018 GHG emissions to be similar to those in 2015.
  • Natural disturbances, mostly outside the control of humans, significantly affect the ability of Canada’s managed forest to consistently absorb more CO2 than they emit.
  • Changes in forest management and the use of harvested wood products can contribute to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
  • Increased use of long-lived wood products to store carbon in the built environment and use of wood products instead of emissions-intensive materials such as concrete, steel and fossil fuels provide opportunities to mitigate climate change.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada must report annually on greenhouse gas emissions from the managed forest.

The “managed forest” is made up of all forests under direct human influence. It’s a subset of Canada’s total forest area and includes forests managed for harvesting, forests subject to fire or insect management, and protected forests, like those found in national and provincial parks. However, the area included in carbon reporting differs somewhat from the total area under these management classifications, as seen in the “Canada’s Forests: Managing for the Future” map at the beginning of this report.

The data in this indicator is consistent with UNFCCC reporting. More information about definitions and methods can be found in Canada’s 2019 National Inventory Report 1990–2017.

What reporting frameworks does this indicator support?

Sources and information
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2019. National Inventory Report 1990–2017: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. (accessed April 16, 2019).
    • This indicator is estimated annually using Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service’s National Forest Carbon Monitoring, Accounting and Reporting System. The system integrates information about forest inventories, forest growth, natural disturbances, forest management activities and land-use change to evaluate carbon stocks, stock changes and emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases in Canada’s managed forests. The system estimates changes in biomass, woody debris, litter and soil carbon pools. The system also estimates transfers to the forest product sector and the fate of harvested wood products manufactured from wood harvested in Canada since 1900. Carbon storage and emissions resulting from these products, regardless of where in the world these emissions occur, are included.
    • “Managed land” includes all lands managed for production of any wood products or wood-based bioenergy, for protection from natural disturbances, or for the conservation of ecological values. Within those managed lands, “forest” includes areas of 1 ha or more having the potential to develop forest cover, with a minimum crown closure of 25% and a minimum tree height of 5 metres at maturity in situ.
    • Insect-affected areas in the second figure include only those areas assigned to the natural partition where tree mortality caused by insects exceeded 20% of biomass.
    • In the third figure, all areas affected by insects are shown (anthropogenic and natural partitions).
    • When stands are affected by stand-replacing wildfires, the emissions and subsequent removals during post-fire regrowth are reported in the category of “natural disturbances.” When regrowing stands reach commercial maturity, the emissions and removals are reported in the “management activity” category. Stands affected by partial disturbances that cause more than 20% mortality are reported in the “natural disturbance” category until the biomass reaches pre-disturbance levels.
    • Harvested wood product emissions are estimated using the “production approach” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and include annual emissions from all wood harvested in Canada since 1900, regardless of its current location. Transfers of wood and paper products to landfills are assumed to instantly oxidize as CO2.
    • For forest lands affected by land-use change, the deforestation and afforestation figures reflect annual rates. Figures for CO2e emissions and removals reflect the current year plus the emissions in the reporting year from lands that were converted from forest in the previous 20 years. Thus, the figures for CO2e emissions include residual emissions from areas deforested over the past 20 years. The figures for CO2e removals in the reporting year include removals by all areas afforested over the past 20 years.
      • Emissions bear a positive sign. Removals bear a negative sign.
    • Starting in 2015, international GHG reporting guidelines changed with respect to harvested wood products. Accordingly, Canada reports the net GHG balance of forested ecosystems and the net GHG balance from harvested wood products. In previous years, all wood removed from the forest was assumed to instantly release all carbon to the atmosphere, despite the long-term storage of carbon in houses and other long-lived wood products. Reporting the fate of carbon in harvested wood products encourages both the sustainable management of forests and the management of harvested wood products aimed at extending carbon storage.
    • Additional information can be found at:
 

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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