Canada wildfires blamed for rise in global loss of tree cover outside of tropics

Brazil, Colombia see gains but Canada's wildfires were 'off the scale'

Progress made when it comes to the protection of the world's forests was thwarted by last year's historic wildfire season in Canada, according to a new report.

The annual survey, published Thursday by the World Resources Institute, a research group, found that global tree cover loss outside of the tropics increased 24 per cent in 2023.

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The change is attributed to the enormous loss of tree cover last year in Canada.

Canada's wildfire season was the worst on record, with five times more tree cover lost due to fire in 2023 than the year before.

Experts say drought and hot temperatures made more likely by climate change created the conditions that resulted in Canada's historic season.

According to the tree cover report, Canada accounted for more than half of the world's forest loss due to fire last year — including all forests, not just those outside of the tropics. Ninety-two per cent of the forest lost in the country was due to fire.

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Tree cover/Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute (CBC)

(Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute (CBC)

Progress, and steps back

The report said "dramatic progress" in policy led to better preservation of the Amazon forest in Brazil and Colombia, despite recent wildfires in northern Brazil that have hampered those advances.

That progress was also counteracted by the loss of forest in other countries — including Bolivia, Laos and Nicaragua — due to fires and the expansion of agricultural land, the report said.

"We must learn from the countries that are successfully slowing deforestation, or else we will continue to rapidly lose one of our most effective tools for fighting climate change," Mikaela Weisse, director of Global Forest Watch, which is part of the World Resources Institute, told reporters in a briefing ahead of the report's release.

P.E.I./Nicola MacLeod/CBC

(Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

The report, prepared in collaboration with the University of Maryland, documented tree loss across the world from deforestation, wildfires and other causes.

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It noted the enormous impact of Canada's wildfire season. Matt Hansen, a professor of geographical sciences at the University of Maryland, called the data from Canada "off the scale" and "another level of outlier."

However, most of the report focused on the tropics, given its importance as an ecosystem to protect in order to avoid carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, Weisse said.

She also suggested the tropics — where people are directly responsible for deforestation — could lead to more action, given recent international commitments.

International and domestic solutions

In 2021, more than 100 countries, including Canada, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by the end of the decade.

But the world remains far off track to reach its 2030 goals. Last year, the tropics lost 3.7 million hectares of primary forest. That's equivalent to losing 10 soccer fields per minute, according to the report.

"The 2023 data shows that countries can cut rates of forest loss when they muster the political will to do so," said Rod Taylor, global director for forests with the World Resources Institute.

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"But we also know that progress can be reversed when political winds change."

Deforestation/Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute (CBC)

(Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute (CBC)

The solution to Canada's tree cover loss might be in encouraging tree regeneration after wildfires, but Canadian experts stress it will require a smarter approach.

"We're not going to go out and plant 18 million hectares. It's just not feasible," Randall Van Wagner, head of Tree Canada's National Greening Program, said in an interview.

What might hold promise is using different types of trees.

"Deciduous trees tend to hold a lot more moisture," Van Wagner explained, suggesting trees like aspens, in contrast to spruce and pine trees, can be a line of defence. "The fire can actually slow down because of that moisture retention."

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Peter Wood, a lecturer with the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry, agreed, saying Canada is not letting these "fire-resistant trees" deciduous regrow and using suppressive chemicals — to make way for more profitable trees to harvest.

"Maybe we should be letting them grow back instead of fighting them in the interest of regrowing pine trees that are better for two-by-fours."

But with the dry conditions setting up what looks like another bad wildfire season, Wood suggested progress could be wiped out before it has a chance to take root.

"The science tells us that forests that are in those early stages of regrowth, they remain very vulnerable," Wood told CBC News. "Until that canopy is established … you can be very vulnerable to fire."

WATCH: How animals cope with wildfires — in the days and years after the burn

Thumbnail courtesy of Julia Wong/CBC.

The story was originally written by Anand Ram and Benjamin Shingler and published for CBC News.