Climate Change

Photo: Candace Kenyon,

Climate change and Canada's forests

Global climate change is one of the most important environmental challenges facing society today, and has important implications for Canada’s forests and its forest-dependent communities.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol offer an international response to climate change aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, the Government of Canada has made climate change a national priority and is working closely with Canadians and the global community. Canada's wide-ranging approach to climate change mitigation embraces the notion of forests as carbon sinks, and a source of renewable energy, in addition to the broad range of other values from the forest including biodiversity and forest products. Inventory work and other efforts are currently underway to develop and implement a system for monitoring and measuring carbon stock changes of Canadian forests.

Photo: Moresby Creative,

Forests as carbon sinks

Forests play an important role in the global carbon cycle, exchanging carbon with the atmosphere through photosynthesis and respiration, and storing a large amount of carbon in vegetation and soil.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Program, estimates that up to one fifth of fossil fuel emissions through to 2050 could be offset by biological mitigation strategies – the vast majority of that being additional carbon sequestered by the earth’s forests.

With 10 per cent of the world’s forested area, Canada is exploring ways to maximize the contribution its forests make to the global carbon budget and make that contribution as permanent as possible. Opportunities to reduce emissions and increase the carbon sink value of these forest lands include reducing natural disturbances such as wildfire, insect and disease infestations, ensuring harvested sites are regenerated quickly, increasing forest productivity, reducing deforestation and returning marginal agricultural land to forest.

In fall 2005, Canada hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which brought together Canadians and experts from governments, business environmental organizations from around the world in order to share their experience and solutions related to climate change action. More than 40 decisions were adopted that will strengthen global efforts to fight climate change.

Understanding climate change impacts

Even small changes in temperature and precipitation can significantly affect tree growth and survival. Canada has experienced an increase in temperature of about 1 degree C over the last century, and this has been associated with longer growing seasons, increased plant growth, shifts in seasonal lifecycles and distribution, and changes in plant hardiness zones. As long as there is enough moisture, longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures should increase growth rates and productivity in some regions. Future climate change is expected to affect species distribution, forest productivity and disturbance regimes. Understanding the forestry sector’s vulnerability to these changes is essential for forest management planning.

Canada is taking steps to adapt to the impacts of climate change on its forests. It is developing new technologies and experimenting with innovative approaches to regeneration, among other things. Much of this research involves the boreal forest, which makes up three-quarters of Canada’s forests and could be affected by climate change more than forests to the south.

Photo: Moresby Creative,

Canadian research activities

The effects of climate change, carbon accounting and greenhouse gas reduction figure strongly in many of Canada’s research and technology projects.

The Canadian Climate Impacts and Adaptation Research Network (C-CIARN) facilitates the generation of new climate change knowledge. It brings researchers together with decision makers from industry, governments and non-government organizations to address key issues related to forestry, agriculture, water resources, coastal zone, health fisheries and landscape hazards, and the impact that climate change could have on these.

To help address the challenge of climate change mitigation, researchers in Canada have developed a user-friendly, operational-scale carbon accounting model that forest managers can use to assess how their operations as well as natural disturbance and land use changes might affect current and future carbon stocks, and what would be the impact of changes in their operations. As well, the model is a key component of Canada’s efforts to monitor the amount of carbon stored in the nation's forests.

Canadian researchers are also gaining a better understanding of how climate change may affect the country’s forests so policy makers, industry and communities can prepare appropriate strategies. Researchers are studying the potential for impacts such as more frequent and larger natural disturbances and extreme weather events that could put more stress on the health and integrity of the existing forest. Strategies and practices that will help forests and forest communities adapt to a changing climate are being developed.

Reducing fossil fuel emissions

Reducing emissions due to fossil fuel use in all sectors of the economy is part of Canada’s contribution to climate change mitigation. The pulp and paper industry has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 19 per cent between 1990 and 2000 – the largest reduction of any industrial sector in the country.

Canada is also reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by developing green energy sources and technologies. Nearly two-thirds of its electricity needs are supplied by renewable energy, most from hydroelectricity. Its second-largest renewable energy source is biomass energy, derived from organic matter such as forestry and agricultural residues or municipal waste.

Turning forest industry biomass waste into energy makes environmental and economic and environmental sense by reducing waste and lowering production costs. Today, more than half of the energy consumed by Canada’s pulp and paper sector comes from biomass energy, which is considered to be carbon neutral and can contribute to the net carbon balance by replacing fossil fuels.

Ontario's Carbon Budget

Researchers, using a well-established model, studied the carbon budget of Ontario's forest ecosystems and found there is potential to increase carbon sinks and to reduce carbon sources through appropriate forest management practices. Intensive forest management practices such as tree improvement; fertilization; changes in rotation length; stocking control and thinning; appropriate harvest methods; and fire, insect, and disease protection measures are being considered as strategic mitigation options.