Nature-based climate solutions go beyond planting trees

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View from Polar Bear Point in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Image: J. H./Flickr

Rumour has it that the federal government is considering a major investment in using nature to reduce greenhouse gases and to mitigate climate change.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land has numerous helpful suggestions in this regard.

The IPCC says that protecting existing high-carbon ecosystems (wetlands, rangelands, forests) has immediate impacts. Canada, with some of the world's largest expanses of intact forests and wetlands, can play a globally significant role in this regard.

Recent research indicates that the Hudson Bay Lowlands, the world's largest continuous expanse of peatlands, can continue to provide a carbon sink even under rapid warming. Peat represents an early stage of coal formation. Conserving peat helps offset the effects of mining and burning coal -- a major contributor to the current climate emergency.

In addition to storing carbon, wetlands help humans adapt to impacts of a changing climate. They recharge groundwater aquifers (reducing the severity of drought), limit flooding in times of extreme precipitation, and moderate local climate (because water resists temperature change).

We've waged war on wetlands far too long. Ontario has had wetland drainage legislation since before Confederation. European settler communities worked together to dig municipal drains, creating productive farmlands such as southern Ontario's Holland Marsh.

But drainage legislation is also used to expand sprawling suburban housing tracts into wetlands. Wetland drainage worsens climate change, both when greenhouse gases are released during microbial decay of peat, and when adaptation services are lost. A thorough revamp of Canada's wetland laws and policies would be timely.

The IPCC also recommends enhancing carbon storage in human-modified areas by planting trees in croplands and pastures, creating wetlands, and reclaiming degraded soils. It says this takes "more time to deliver" but can provide important economic benefits in addition to combating climate change.

Excessive reliance on planting trees is risky. Fires can quickly release stored forest carbon. Landscapes dominated by monocultures of planted conifers -- typical of industrial forestry -- are far more susceptible to forest stand-destroying fires and insect outbreaks than more natural landscapes where conifers are interspersed with deciduous poplars and birches.

The IPCC calls for restraint in tree planting to avoid such risks, and to reduce competition with food production: "If applied on a limited share of total land and integrated into sustainably managed landscapes, there will be fewer adverse side-effects."

Many farmers remain unaware that devoting a small portion -- as little as 10 per cent -- of their land to strategically planted trees will enhance crop growth by trapping snow and moisture, reducing wind damage, and providing habitat for pollinators and beneficial predators of insect pests.

Planting windbreaks and shelterbelts should be a national priority. The federal government operated an Agroforestry Development Centre at Indian Head, Saskatchewan throughout the 20th century. It produced more than 650 million tree seedlings before it was closed in 2013.

Another important consideration is the fate of harvested forest products.

Large tracts of Canada's intact boreal forest are being converted into toilet paper, whose carbon goes down the pipe to the sewage plant and back into the atmosphere. Television ads promote soft toilet paper as being highly desirable, but consumers don't know that softness means sacrificing virgin forests.

A recent article summarizes a report from the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council under the provocative headline, "Wiped out: America's love of luxury toilet paper is destroying Canadian forests."

If harvested wood were instead used to build affordable, energy-efficient, low-income housing, carbon would remain locked up for decades. The housing and climate change crises could be addressed simultaneously.

Canada has many opportunities to lead the world in nature-based climate solutions. The IPCC has provided excellent advice. Let's follow it.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Image: J. H./Flickr

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