Human Activity and the Environment 2021
Accounting for ecosystem change in Canada

Release date: January 25, 2022


Human Activity and the Environment 2021: Accounting for ecosystem change in Canada provides some of the latest statistics on the extent and condition of Canada’s ecosystems, as well as estimates of the supply and use of selected ecosystem services.

The increasing severity of global environmental issues are making it increasingly clear that economic and social health are dependent on maintaining ecosystems and the flows of services that they provide. But while today’s decision-making can count on a wealth of robust socio-economic data, getting a complete picture of the state of Canada’s ecosystems is difficult at the current time.

This report is the result of Statistics Canada’s work to make comprehensive information on Canada’s ecosystems more readily available. It is doing so by developing and implementing ecosystem accounts according to the new integrated and comprehensive statistical framework for ecosystem accounting adopted by the United Nations Statistical Commission. The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting – Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA – EA) takes a spatial approach to accounting, by organizing existing data on the location and size of ecosystem assets, tracking changes in their condition, measuring ecosystem services and linking this information to economic and human activity.

This work is an initial effort to provide as much information as possible about Canada’s ecosystems. However, further work is needed to assess change on a long-term basis and develop quantitative measures and valuations to provide a more complete picture of the relationship between the economy, society and the environment and how we measure well-being and social progress. These issues will be the focus of further efforts as we embark on the development of a new Census of Environment program, which will provide access to a complete set of integrated environmental accounts and a wide range of regional-based information on issues stemming from rapid environmental change.

Selected highlights of the report are presented below. Further details on the results, analysis, sources, methodology, limitations and data gaps are available from the report.

Ecosystem extent and drivers of change

  • Canada has some of the largest forest, tundra, prairie, wetland and freshwater ecosystems in the world, extending across 9.98 million km2. Overall, approximately 36% of the country is covered by forest, 25% by arctic tundra, 4% by grassland including natural pasture or rangeland, 2% by permanent snow and ice cover and 28% by other natural and semi-natural areas such as woodland, shrubland, alpine tundra, barrenland, wetland and water. In 2016, 4% of the country was used for growing crops and tame or seeded pastures. Overall, 62,600 km2 or about 0.6% of Canada’s landscape consisted of settlement and human infrastructure in 2015, up 11% from 56,400 km2 in 2000.
  • Jurisdiction over the ocean includes 5.75 million km2 within the limit of Canada’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Close to half of this area is made up of areas with a maximum water depth of 200 m, supporting a diversity of marine life including fish and invertebrates that are important for major fisheries, as well as marine plants, such as phytoplankton, seagrasses and kelp, which play a key role in carbon storage.
  • All areas of Canada’s landmass have experienced increases in average annual and seasonal air temperatures from 1948 to 2016, but with important regional variations. The strongest temperature increases occurred across a vast region stretching across over 1.6 million km2 of boreal and tundra ecosystems from Yellowknife to the Yukon–Alaska border. In this region, winter temperatures have increased by more than 5°C, with over 300,000 km2 experiencing winter temperatures increases between 6°C and 7°C and almost 17,500 km2, an area three times the size of Prince Edward Island, experiencing winter temperature increases greater than 7°C.
  • In the Prairies, agricultural areas covering over 400,000 km2 have experienced a 1.9°C increase in annual temperature and a 3.8°C increase in winter temperature from 1948 to 2016. These types of changes are driving a range of impacts on ecosystem conditions, including changes in snow and ice cover, glacier melt, permafrost thaw, freshwater flows, evapotranspiration, forest disturbance regimes, species migration, sea surface temperature, salinity and many other characteristics.

Ecosystem condition

  • Total water storage change, estimated using gravity-based measurements from satellites, indicates that water storage decreased in many areas from 2002 to 2016, with the largest decreases in northern ecozones such as the Arctic Cordillera and Boreal Cordillera where large quantities of freshwater are stored in permafrost, glaciers and ice caps.
  • Changes in precipitation and evapotranspiration will affect the availability of renewable water flows. Canada’s average annual water yield was 3,514 km3 or 0.35 m3/m2 from 1971 to 2014, equivalent to a depth of 350 mm across the extent of the country. Renewable freshwater production varies spatially across the country’s diverse landscape and also varies temporally—monthly, seasonally and yearly. The lowest water yields occur in ecoprovinces across the Prairies.
  • A new assessment of urban ecosystem condition used satellite imagery to assess the relative greenness of population centres in summer for three years. In 2019, 76% of the area of population centres in southern Canada had enough healthy vegetation to be classed as predominantly ‘green’ while the remaining urban areas had less vegetation and were classed as ‘grey’. This percentage varied based on city size and region. In large urban population centres, an average of 70% of the total land area was classed as green, compared to 78% in medium population centres and 87% in small population centres.
  • Ecosystem modification from human activity including changes in land cover and land use result in changes in ecosystem characteristics, functions and supply of ecosystem services. In 2016, 9% of Canada’s terrestrial and freshwater area had been directly modified for agriculture, recent forest harvest or built-up area.
  • Average annual sea surface temperatures from 2005 to 2017 have warmed compared with the 1981 to 2010 climate normal average for most areas of the Canadian EEZ. However, sea surface cooling is seen in parts of the Pacific and Hudson Bay over the same period. Average annual surface salinity from 2005 to 2017 has decreased against the climate normal salinity for many regions. These changes affect stratification of marine waters with further effects on nutrient availability and dissolved oxygen concentrations. These conditions also have cascading impacts on marine life, from the phytoplankton and zooplankton—microscopic aquatic plants and animals—at the bottom of the marine food web, to fish and marine mammals. Species abundance data include stocks of fish and marine mammals managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and deemed economically, culturally or environmentally important. In 2019, 52 of these 176 stocks were deemed healthy, while the status of 29 stocks was assessed as cautious, 25 as critical and 70 as uncertain since there was insufficient data to classify the status.
  • Sea ice is a defining characteristic of marine and coastal ecosystems across the Canadian Arctic and parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Total sea ice extent varies by season and over time; however, over the last fifty years, sea ice has decreased. The record minimum ice extent for Canada and the Arctic Ocean as a whole was set in the summer of 2012, followed in Canadian waters by 2011 and 1998 with the second and third lowest areas.
  • Direct impacts and modifications to ocean ecosystems from human activity can include bottom trawling, species introduction, marine pollution and noise from shipping, as well as others that are not all easily quantified. Aquaculture and offshore oil production are regulated industries with activities occurring at specific sites allowing the area affected to be more easily tracked. Marine aquaculture sites for finfish and shellfish production cover an estimated 400 km2 of coastal area. Licenses allowing for marine oil exploration within the EEZ cover 37,500 km2, with an additional 21,000 km2 covered by significant discovery licenses that indicate where production could in future be permitted. Oil production sites covering approximately 1,000 km2 are located on the East Coast of Canada.
  • In 2020, Canada had conserved 12.5% of its terrestrial and inland water areas and 13.8% of the EEZ through protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Supply and use of ecosystem services

  • In 2019, Canada’s forest and agricultural ecosystems supported the production of an estimated 141 million tonnes of timber and 149 million tonnes of agricultural goods, while freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems produced 808 thousand tonnes of fish, shellfish and marine plants. Provisioning services also include the smaller quantities of flora and fauna that were foraged, hunted and harvested for recreational, commercial and subsistence use and the 36.8 billion m3 of water extracted in 2017 by industries and households from rivers, lakes and groundwater. This total excludes use for hydro-electric generation.
  • Regulating services include a large number of vital services provided by ecosystems. For example, they include the global climate regulation services provided through carbon sequestration and retention in ecosystems. Organic wetlands store large quantities of carbon—it is estimated that Canada’s peatlands hold more than half the stocks of soil organic carbon in the country. Canada’s managed forests store on average 205 tonnes of carbon per hectare in forest soils, trees, leaf litter and deadwood. While trees take up large amounts of carbon each year, managed forests were a net emitter of carbon in 2018 after accounting for emissions associated with harvesting and natural disturbances. In 2018, an estimated 3,500 kilotonnes of carbon were sequestered by trees in urban and agricultural areas. Ongoing research is occurring to estimate sequestration and storage of blue carbon—the carbon in marine plants and coastal sediment—in Canada’s salt marshes, seagrass meadows and kelp forests.
  • The average air pollutant removal per square metre of tree cover in 86 Canadian cities in 2010 was estimated to be 3.72 g/m2/year for five common air pollutants, resulting in a small improvement in air quality. The total pollution removal value for these cities was estimated at $511 per hectare of urban tree cover.
  • Cultural services can involve appreciation of and interactions with nature, as well as the contributions of ecosystems and biodiversity to well-being. For example, activities in nature including in public parks and green spaces provide valuable recreation services and may have positive effects on mental health. In 2019, 90% of households reported that they lived close to a park or public green space and many people engaged in recreational activities outdoors and in nature.
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