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Indicator: Forest carbon emissions and removals

In 2018, the total net emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from Canada’s managed forests (forest lands managed for timber production) and forest products were about 243 million tonnes (Mt).

The 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.

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 either be a source or a sink of CO2. A source adds carbon to the atmosphere, while a sink absorbs it. Data from 2018 suggest that overall the forests were a source of CO2 due to 1.4 million hectares (ha) of area burned.

Human activities in Canada’s managed forests accounted for removals of about 8 Mt CO2e in 2018, while large-scale natural disturbances accounted for emissions of about 251 Mt CO2e, resulting in net emissions of 243 Mt CO2e. (These figures include carbon monoxide emissions and emissions in 2018 from harvested wood products manufactured from wood harvested in Canada since 1900, which are reported as separate categories in the National Inventory Report; see section 6.9.4 of Canada’s 2020 National Inventory Report, 1990–2018.)

  • Forest lands managed for timber production, and the emissions from harvested wood products harvested from these lands, continue to be an ongoing sink of carbon, removing 8 Mt CO2e from the atmosphere in 2018.
  • In 2018, the area burned in Canada’s managed forests was 1.4 million hectares (ha), similar to 2017.

Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forests: All areas, 1991 to 2018

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Graph summary

The net carbon emissions in Canada’s managed forests were 243 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2018, taking into account both human activities and natural disturbances. The trend in net carbon emissions from 1991 to 2018 is toward larger annual emissions, but with high annual variability. Canada’s managed forests were a net sink of carbon, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, from 1991 to 2001, with the exception of 1995 and 1998, when managed forests emitted carbon. From 2002 to 2018, taking into account both human and natural disturbances, Canada’s managed forests emitted carbon each year. The three highest emitting years were 2015 (225 Mt CO2e), 2017 (208 Mt CO2e) and 2018 (243 Mt CO2e).

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed by forestry activities within Canada’s managed forest for each year from 1991 to 2018. The area disturbed remains around 1.1 million hectares (ha) per year, with larger areas disturbed from 1999 to 2006, and smaller areas disturbed from 2007 to 2009. There is a clear downward trend from the largest area disturbed in 2004 (1.36 million ha) to the smallest area disturbed in 2009 (0.8 million ha). In 2018, 1.1 million hectares were disturbed.

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed by insects and wildfires within Canada’s managed forest from 1991 to 2018. The area disturbed by both causes is highly variable from year to year. There is no clear trend in the area disturbed by insects, which varies from a low of 119,000 hectares (ha) in 1992, to a high of 12.2 million ha in 2006. Wildfire activity varied from a low of 93,000 ha in 2000 to 2,300,000 ha in 1995, and shows a trend of slow increase, even with high annual variability. In 2018, insects disturbed 8.2 million ha, while wildfires disturbed 1.4 million ha of Canada’s managed forests.

Graph data
Table showing the greenhouse gas emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests for each year between from 1991 to 2018. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest disturbed, in hectares, for each year from 1991 to 2018 by three causes: (1) forest management, (2) wildland fire and (3) insects.
Year Area of forestry activities Area burned Area disturbed by insects GHG net emissions
1991 912,676 583,301 1,068,104 -68.9
1992 1,001,899 107,860 118,534 -111.4
1993 995,419 686,300 196,467 -54.5
1994 1,045,137 568,968 343,233 -41.7
1995 1,109,941 2,273,569 444,862 148.3
1996 1,092,076 638,703 257,670 -35.9
1997 1,146,980 173,486 248,252 -85.1
1998 1,103,424 1,607,547 542,404 119.8
1999 1,215,089 644,371 1,625,969 -8.5
2000 1,259,598 93,145 2,744,263 -68.3
2001 1,191,558 202,897 3,895,425 -57.7
2002 1,249,458 1,445,685 5,447,789 107.5
2003 1,235,339 767,614 8,693,315 45.7
2004 1,359,222 947,406 5,774,343 125.0
2005 1,348,067 639,617 9,144,450 43.5
2006 1,232,605 662,462 12,247,376 60.8
2007 1,091,639 736,598 9,977,810 67.3
2008 957,347 390,212 7,834,440 8.5
2009 844,584 379,874 4,752,595 17.3
2010 989,825 982,154 4,586,390 100.8
2011 1,011,818 1,108,888 4,610,743 121.4
2012 1,037,585 928,260 4,171,535 95.6
2013 1,052,949 480,146 5,308,799 26.0
2014 1,061,991 1,281,563 6,971,238 143.9
2015 1,061,090 2,048,949 7,561,335 224.9
2016 1,057,204 766,144 7,245,811 108.1
2017 1,095,323 1,475,403 7,294,270 208.0
2018 1,115,708 1,424,063 8,228,518 243.2

The total net emissions and removals from Canada’s managed forests, taking into account both human activities and natural disturbances, was about 243 Mt CO2e (–8 + 251 = 243) in 2018. This includes the emissions in 2018 from wood harvested in Canada since 1900 and wood products used in Canada and abroad.


Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forest: Areas subject to human activities, 1991 to 2018

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Graph summary

Since 1991, forest management activities in Canada have been a net sink of greenhouse gases. However, the size of the sink has been slowly decreasing. In 1991, human activities in Canada’s managed forests resulted in net removals of 75 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), and by 2005, the net removals were 3 Mt CO2e. The size of the sink increased from 2005 to 2009, with 31 Mt CO2e removed in 2009. The trend toward smaller removals of atmospheric carbon continued from 2009 to 2018, with 8 Mt CO2e removed in 2018.

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed by forestry activities within Canada’s managed forest for each year from 1991 to 2018. The area disturbed remains around 1.1 million hectares (ha) per year, with larger areas disturbed from 1999 to 2006, and smaller areas disturbed from 2007 to 2009. There is a clear downward trend from the largest area disturbed in 2004 (1.36 million ha) to the smallest area disturbed in 2009 (0.8 million ha). In 2018, 1.1 million ha were disturbed.

Graph data
Table showing the greenhouse gas emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests due to forest management activities for each year from 1991 to 2018. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide for that year, while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forestry activities, in hectares, in Canada’s managed forest.
Year Area of forestry activities GHG net emissions
1991 912,676 -74.5
1992 1,001,899 -65.1
1993 995,419 -57.1
1994 1,045,137 -55.1
1995 1,109,941 -40.5
1996 1,092,076 -47.6
1997 1,146,980 -47.7
1998 1,103,424 -53.4
1999 1,215,089 -42.1
2000 1,259,598 -26.8
2001 1,191,558 -42.0
2002 1,249,458 -26.9
2003 1,235,339 -32.1
2004 1,359,222 -8.5
2005 1,348,067 -2.8
2006 1,232,605 -11.3
2007 1,091,639 -14.2
2008 957,347 -19.5
2009 844,584 -31.0
2010 989,825 -14.3
2011 1,011,818 -14.6
2012 1,037,585 -18.1
2013 1,052,949 -16.6
2014 1,061,991 -17.1
2015 1,061,090 -11.2
2016 1,057,204 -12.5
2017 1,095,323 -11.1
2018 1,115,708 -7.9

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 8 Mt CO2e in 2018.


Net carbon emissions in Canada's managed forest: Areas subject to natural disturbances, 1991 to 2018

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Graph summary

Since 1991, net annual greenhouse gas emissions due to natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests have been closely related to the annual area burned. As the amount of forest area burned by wildfires varies widely from year to year, the trend in carbon emissions also varies, with large up and down swings over the span of a year or two. The lowest emissions were in 1992, with a net removal of carbon of 46 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), while the highest emissions were in 2018, with a net emission of 251 Mt CO2e. However, the graph shows an overall trend toward increasing carbon emissions due to natural disturbances over time.

The graph also shows the annual area disturbed by insects and wildfires within Canada’s managed forest from 1991 to 2018. The area disturbed by both causes is highly variable from year to year. There is no clear trend in the area disturbed by insects, which varies from a low of 28,000 hectares (ha) in 1993, to a high of 7.4 million ha in 2006. The area disturbed by Wildfire activity varied from a low of 93,000 ha in 2000 to 2,300,000 ha in 1995, and shows a trend of slow increase, even with high annual variability. In 2018, insects disturbed 4.6 million ha, while wildfires disturbed 1.4 million ha of Canada’s managed forests.

Graph data
Table showing the greenhouse gas emissions or removals, in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, in Canada’s managed forests due to natural disturbances for each year from 1991 to 2018. A positive number indicates a net emission of carbon dioxide while a negative number indicates a net removal. The table also displays the area of forest, in hectares, disturbed by wildland fires and insects for each year from 1991 to 2018.
Year Area burned Area disturbed by insects GHG net emissions
1991 583,301 345,991 5.6
1992 107,860 98,624 -46.3
1993 686,300 27,659 2.6
1994 568,968 41,907 13.4
1995 2,273,569 60,201 188.8
1996 638,703 62,752 11.7
1997 173,486 81,917 -37.4
1998 1,607,547 433,602 173.2
1999 644,371 1,473,942 33.6
2000 93,145 2,544,524 -41.4
2001 202,897 3,235,174 -15.7
2002 1,445,685 3,861,021 134.4
2003 767,614 5,264,215 77.8
2004 947,406 1,962,423 133.5
2005 639,617 5,014,453 46.3
2006 662,462 7,388,982 72.1
2007 736,598 6,338,431 81.6
2008 390,212 4,555,448 27.9
2009 379,874 1,851,072 48.3
2010 982,154 1,349,808 115.1
2011 1,108,888 1,522,121 136.0
2012 928,260 2,025,478 113.7
2013 480,146 2,709,697 42.6
2014 1,281,563 3,652,505 161.0
2015 2,048,949 3,691,747 236.1
2016 766,144 3,488,870 120.6
2017 1,475,403 4,201,396 219.1
2018 1,424,063 4,620,732 251.1

Natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests resulted in net emissions of about 251 Mt CO2e in 2018. Forest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were similar to those in 2015 and 2017, in large part because of the 1.4 million ha of area burned in 2018.

Why is this indicator important?

  • Carbon as carbon dioxide (CO2) and as methane (CH4) in the atmosphere are important contributors to global warming.
  • Canada’s forest sector provides renewable resources to the Canadian economy, while also providing aesthetic values, clean water and wildlife habitat.

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). The area burned in British Columbia in 2019 was considerably lower than in 2017, 2018 and thus we expect overall GHG emissions in 2019 to be less than in the previous two years.
  • Natural disturbances, mostly outside the control of humans, significantly impact the ability of Canada’s managed forests 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 the use of wood products instead of emissions-intensive materials such as concrete, steel and fossil fuels provide climate change mitigation opportunities.

What reporting frameworks does this indicator support?

 
Sources and information
  • Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2020. National Inventory Report 1990–2018: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada.
  • Notes:
    • 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. The estimates include carbon storage and emissions resulting from these products regardless of where in the world these emissions occur.
    • 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 all areas of 1 hectare 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. However, 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 (IPCC) 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 CO2 equivalent (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. As well, 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 greenhouse gas (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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