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Canada could reap sizeable economic and environmental gains by supporting better carbon management in our forests and on our farms, which are often treated as afterthoughts in the climate-crisis debate.

In an online roundtable Wednesday, experts urged the federal government to dramatically scale up its support for nature-based climate solutions.

The approach would not only contribute to the country’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; it would protect nature, create jobs, provide additional income to struggling farmers and promote reconciliation with Indigenous communities, a white paper produced for the session by Ralph Torrie of Torrie Smith Associates and Céline Bak of Analytica Advisors concluded.

Currently, Canada is one of only a few major economies that do not incorporate the value of environmental services provided by forests, wetlands and farms into their agricultural policies.

The session on forestry and farming was hosted by Corporate Knights as part of its seven-part Building Back Better event series. It was held amid growing calls for the Liberal government to ensure that its planned post-COVID stimulus program serves to accelerate the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Because forests and land can sequester carbon and because of the sheer scale of Canada’s land mass, nature-based climate solutions can have a material impact on both the climate and biodiversity crises,” the authors wrote in their discussion paper.

They noted that the Liberal government proposes to set aside 30% of Canada’s land and 30% of oceans for conservation by 2030.

The white paper proposed a number of measures to scale up the current efforts to plant trees, return marginal farmland to nature and reduce the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers on farms.

The measures include:
• $4 billion over 10 years to support farmers in converting 10 million acres of marginal agricultural land to forest, grassland or wetlands. The conservation initiatives would sequester 22 million tonnes of GHG emissions annually and create 5,600 jobs annually.
• $16 billion over 10 years to increase the planned federal tree-planting program from 200 million trees annually to one billion. Planting an additional 800 million trees annually would generate 15,000 jobs a year and reduce emissions by an average of 30 million tonnes between 2020 and 2050.
• $200 million over 18 months to provide incentives for farmers to reduce their use of nitrogen-based fertilizer. The transition would reduce farmers’ costs and increase their incomes while creating 2,880 jobs and cutting GHGs by 3.75 million tonnes annually.

In the fight against climate change, government investment in nature and biodiversity is an “essential component that needs to happen, but it is not getting much attention,” David Martin, chair of WWF-Canada, told the virtual roundtable.

Typically, the climate debate has centred on the production and use of energy, and how Canadians can transition off fossil fuels. But agriculture accounts for about one 10th of the country’s GHG emissions, with the majority of that total traceable to production of beef and overuse of nitrogen fertilizer.

“As farm inputs increase, so do farm emissions,” said Darrin Qualman, director of climate crisis policy and action for the National Farmers Union. While financial incentives are important, governments must also support additional agronomists who can work with farmers to reduce their dependence on high-cost fertilizers, he said.

The Canadian forestry sector is already gearing up to meet the Liberal government’s promise to plant 200 million trees a year on land that is not currently forested. (The forestry sector is responsible for replanting where they have cut.)

To increase that planting to one billion trees a year would require a massive commitment to the supply chain – from the nurseries to land owners to the workforce – said Rob Keen, executive director of Forests Ontario. “In order for [the industry] to make that kind of investment, they need a 10-year window of funding,” he said. “It can’t just be a year-by-year line item in the budget.”

While tree planting is an important part of the strategy, governments have to pay at least as much attention to “protecting what we have,” said Tzeporah Berman, international program director for Stand.Earth, an environmental organization.

Practices like clearcutting forests for toilet paper and using wood pellets to generate electricity along with the lack of paper recycling initiatives turn Canada’s forests from a carbon sink into a source of emissions, she noted.

The paper industry’s recycling effort was stalled when municipalities began sending their used paper to Asia, said Magali Depras, chief sustainability officer at Quebec-based TC Transcontinental. Now that Asian nations have stopped taking our waste, Canada has an opportunity to recommit to the circular economy, in which makers of consumer goods reuse recycled raw materials.

Valérie Courtois, of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said the government’s focus on nature-based climate solutions has to include Indigenous communities who are already leading the conservation effort.

Her group runs the federally funded Indigenous Guardians program, in which local people monitor ecological health, maintain cultural sites and protect sensitive areas and species.

If the government is going to meet its target of conserving 30% of the land, “it needs to work with Indigenous people, and we are poised to do that,” she said.

 

Shawn McCarthy writes on sustainable finance and climate for Corporate Knights. He is also senior counsel for Sussex Strategy Group.

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