Nature and Biodiversity

Canada’s forest fires have surged. This is how and why we must act, now

Wildfires are increasing in densely forested Canada.

Wildfires are increasing in densely forested Canada. Image: Unsplash/London Parenteau

Derrick Emsley
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, veritree
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Climate and Nature

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  • Canada’s forests are critical to safeguard livelihoods and serve as a major contributor to the country’s economy but are subject to an increasing number of devastating forest fires.
  • Forests kept intact over time become less fire-prone with age, which is why more investment is needed in the conservation and restoration of forests.
  • Public and private sector efforts are integral to helping restore Canada’s vast forestry.

Canada is home to 9% of the world’s forest cover, covering roughly one-third of the country, making it the third most forested country in the world. Not surprisingly, Canada’s forest sector is a major contributor to Canada’s economy contributing $25.2 billion to nominal gross domestic product and directly employing more than 184,000 Canadians. Furthermore, an estimated 70% of Canadian Indigenous communities live on or near forested lands.

These critical forests are now, in fact, burning. During an average Canadian wildfire season, 24,600 square kilometres of land will typically burn. As of late July 2023, over 100,000 square kilometres have already been ablaze. That’s around 33% larger than the entire footprint of the Province of New Brunswick. The unprecedented surge has raised significant concerns among environmental experts and conservationists.

Recent reports indicate a sharp increase in the frequency and severity of fires, challenging the resilience of forests and endangering both human lives and wildlife populations. Investing in the conservation and restoration of forests is vital to mitigate climate change, the biggest cause of the increased frequency of wildfires. Forests kept intact over time become less fire-prone with age.

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What are intact forests?

According to WRI, Intact forest landscapes are patches of forests and natural treeless ecosystems that show no signs of significant human activity or habitat fragmentation (as detected by satellite imagery) and are large enough to maintain all native biodiversity. Intact ecosystems remove around 12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, counteracting almost 30% of annual human emissions.

As of 2020, Canada, Russia and Brazil had the largest area of remaining intact forest landscapes, making up over 65% of the global total. Canada’s boreal forest is, in fact, the largest intact forest in the world. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes, the boreal forest “stores nearly twice as much carbon in its vegetation and soils as is in the world’s combined oil reserves.”

However, the wildfires affecting Canada now are affecting these intact forests too, losing an irreplaceable landscape and a critical medium for sequestering and storing carbon. Intact forest landscapes in Canada, Russia and Brazil have experienced the largest reduction from 2000 to 2020.

Wildfires naturally occur within our ecosystems and are essential for forest health. They clear fuel and debris build up on the ground (such as leaves, branches and dried organic matter), clearing space and helping some species germinate. However, higher temperatures can cause vegetation to dry out, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to start and spread. With the global temperatures rising and the reduction of intact forests, forest fires season grows longer and more aggressively.

Sustainable forest management, climate financing and international agreements that commit to halting forest loss are some of the key solutions to mitigate intact forest loss. Drawing from extensive experience tackling deforestation, Canada has implemented rigorous regulations, sustainable forestry certifications and innovative approaches to ensure its forests’ long-term health and vitality.

It is high time all sectors join forces to invest in forest restoration and combat climate change.

Derrick Emsley, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, tentree

Multi-sector approach

The 2 Billion Trees programme (2BT) seeks to ensure a resilient and thriving future for the forests and the communities that depend on them. Coordinating resources, securing suitable land and managing funding allocations have proven to be complex tasks that require time and careful planning.

According to the latest summer update by the Government of Canada, since launching in 2021, the programme has supported the planting of over 110 million trees, exceeding the circa 90 million goal during its first two years and “is putting us on track to achieve the two billion trees commitment.” It has encompassed 179 tree-planting and capacity-building projects coast to coast. Ninety percent of these projects involved the planting of more than two types of trees and one in five projects was Indigenous-led. Over 220 different species were planted at more than 2,900 sites across Canada.

The private sector also has a critical role in restoring forest landscapes. One compelling example of this is tentree. The planting company was created to support the planet and combat climate change using the sale of its apparel to fund the company’s reforestation efforts. By leveraging a restorative business model, they have scaled reforestation efforts globally and across Canada from coast to coast. These areas include those impacted by wildfires in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, urban reforestation and afforestation in Ontario and terrestrial reforestation throughout Eastern Canada.

Tentree’s work also extends to protecting Canada’s vast intact forests, including the Canadian boreal forest. For instance, through their partnership with Saskatchewan Provincial Park, tentree has helped reforest areas within the Lac La Ronge Provincial Park, planting Jack pine and black spruce, two boreal conifers that are particularly well suited to thrive in dry and nutrient-poor conditions. Helping to conserve and restore the boreal forest in Saskatchewan has far-reaching benefits as it supports 13% of Canada’s threatened boreal woodland caribou population and serves as the breeding ground for over 175 bird species.

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Tracking impact

Veritree built upon tentree’s learnings and was designed to empower other businesses to embrace restoration through this platform that prioritizes transparency, measurability and verification for reforestation projects. To date, they have verified over 25 million trees, providing confidence and assurance to businesses that their efforts are contributing to real and impactful outcomes.

For example, one of the projects the platform is measuring, monitoring and verifying is a post-wildfire reforestation site in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Through this platform, partners can learn and track the project’s socio-economic benefits through surveys and how it impacts the region’s biodiversity through bio-acoustic monitoring.

Furthermore, with the help of geospatial tracking, they can watch how the forest’s canopy changes over time. With a pragmatic approach that combines environmental consciousness with effective business practices, the private sector can actively contribute to forest restoration efforts, fostering sustainability, transparency and environmental well-being.

To further fuel efforts to support Canada’s critical forests, 1t.org – the trillion trees platform of the World Economic Forum – launched its Canada chapter this July. Tentree and veritree, along with other Canadian businesses, such as TELUS and Teck Resources Limited, have come together to support the launch and governance of the chapter as part of the 1t.org Canada Leadership Council. As one of its priorities, the 1t.org’s Canada chapter will aim to scale climate-smart reforestation strategies that support forest resiliency and improve wildfire prevention, mitigation and preparedness.

Acknowledging that conserving and restoring ecosystems is a collective endeavour, these organizations strive to empower and inspire others by sharing insights, learnings, tools and best practices. It is high time all sectors join forces to invest in forest restoration and combat climate change. Our forests and our future depend on it.

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