Canada wildfires contribute significantly to global carbon emissions in 2023

Severe wildfires in Canada produced 23% of global carbon emissions, highlighting the escalating environmental impact of such disasters.

In brief:
  • Canada's wildfires in 2023 emitted nearly 480 megatonnes of carbon, marking a record high for the country and accounting for 23% of global wildfire emissions.

  • The smoke from these fires severely impacted air quality across North America and Europe, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of such environmental events.

  • The relationship between climate change and wildfires is complex, with rising temperatures increasing the likelihood of unprecedented wildfires.

In detail: 

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) reported that Canada's wildfires in 2023 have contributed 23% to the global wildfire carbon emissions. This year, the country experienced some of the most significant wildfires in its history, emitting almost 480 megatonnes of carbon. This figure not only sets a new record for Canada but also underscores the growing environmental crisis posed by such natural disasters.

The wildfires, which began in early May, were not only remarkable for their carbon emissions but also for their intensity, persistence, and the impact they had on local communities. Regions like British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, the Northwest territories, and Quebec were severely affected.

The environmental impact of these fires extended far beyond Canada's borders. The smoke pollution generated severely affected air quality across large parts of North America and even reached Europe, leading to hazy skies and deteriorating air conditions.

Mark Parrington, CAMS Senior Scientist, emphasised the significance of the Canadian wildfires in the global context of fire emissions for 2023. “The scale across much of the country, and persistence with fires continuing from May until October, was at a level which has never been seen in the data record (including longer records than those we have in the GFAS dataset).”

While Canada broke records with its wildfires, other regions like the United States and Russia experienced quieter fire seasons than usual, with estimated emissions below the average of the previous 20 years. In contrast, the Mediterranean region in Europe, particularly Greece, faced devastating wildfires during the summer months, significantly impacting local communities. 

The wildfires in Spain and the Canary Islands also marked high emissions, with Tenerife experiencing the highest carbon emissions since 2003. Similarly, significant wildfires were observed in regions across Eurasia, including Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

The Southern Hemisphere was not spared either, with increased fire activity in Indonesia, Australia, Chile, Argentina, and parts of South America. The El Niño phenomenon contributed to higher temperatures and drier conditions, exacerbating the risk of fires in these regions.

The link between climate change and wildfires is a complex one. While emissions from wildfires are not the primary drivers of increased greenhouse gas concentrations, the rising temperatures associated with these gases do increase the likelihood of such fires. As heatwaves become more frequent and drought conditions persist, the risk of experiencing unprecedented wildfires like those in Canada grows.