Will Canada See the Forest for the Trees?

The boreal, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, is in danger. By working to save it, Canada could make a quantum leap, culturally and environmentally.
Credit: David Dodge/CPAWS/Flickr

The boreal, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, is in danger. By working to save it, Canada could make a quantum leap, culturally and environmentally.

Because our neighboring nations have so much in common culturally, you can sometimes almost forget that you’ve traveled to another country when visiting Canada from the United States. But after spending much of the last year fighting the efforts of the Trump administration to undermine our environmental safeguards, I find it encouraging to meet with a government willing to consider taking much-needed actions to protect its communities and environmental treasures.

At the beginning of February, my NRDC colleague Anthony Swift and I traveled to Ottawa to meet with indigenous and environmental leaders as well as officials from the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Our main focus was the boreal forest, one of the largest, most important forest ecosystems in the world. This massive biome, which rings the top of the globe just below the Arctic Circle, provides critical habitat for countless species and is the ancestral home for many hundreds of indigenous communities. It’s also one of our planet’s most effective carbon sinks, storing in its trees, plants, and soil as much as 44 percent of the earth’s land-based carbon, according to some experts.

Canada’s portion of the boreal forest is believed to store more than 300 billion tons of carbon, which is equivalent to the entire planet’s carbon dioxide emissions from 36 years of burning fossil fuels. That alone makes Canada the custodian of a precious global resource, one that must be tended with the utmost care.

Distressingly, however, industrial logging companies have clearcut more than 25 million acres of Canadian boreal over the past two decades. That activity triggers the release of more than 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year—equal to the emissions from more than five million passenger vehicles. Sustained logging activity has also devastated millions of acres of habitat for the severely threatened boreal woodland caribou and other species and jeopardized the way of life for hundreds of First Nations and indigenous communities that have lived in the forest for thousands of years.

While the impact of industrial logging in the heart of the boreal has been enabled by a lack of protections, it has also been driven in significant part by U.S. demand for forest products used in the manufacture of our paper, tissue, and lumber. Indeed, eight major buyers of boreal products—companies like Kimberley-Clark, Proctor & Gamble, and Ben & Jerry’s—recently called on Canadian federal and provincial governments to take greater action to protect the boreal. Because of its vital importance to indigenous peoples and its global importance for our climate and species diversity, we all have a role to play to ensure that one of the world’s last great forests is protected.

We went to Ottawa hoping to speak with people who understood and appreciated the need for a healthy, thriving Canadian boreal forest. The Trudeau government has an enormous opportunity to pursue policies that protect the boreal, support a sustainable economy, and foster trust and reconciliation with indigenous peoples whose interests have long been ignored or derided by past governments. In striking this new balance, Prime Minister Trudeau must operate within a constitutional framework that gives Canada’s provinces primary authority over land use, a factor that inevitably shapes the effort to form a coherent, national boreal forest policy.

But our discussions made it clear that the Canadian boreal is so much more than a problem in need of solving. It also represents a rare opportunity for Canada to strengthen relationships with its indigenous peoples, protect and restore its caribou populations, slash its carbon footprint, and reinforce its burgeoning identity as an international leader on climate change and sustainable development. Immediate action on boreal forest protection could roll all of these urgent environmental and social priorities into a single, integrated solution.

The Trudeau government has taken steps in the right direction. But it needs to move farther and faster.

Last July, Ottawa proposed a nationwide action plan to protect boreal woodland caribou habitats. But between logging industry pushback and provincial politics, deadlines have been missed and concrete action has yet to be taken—at a time when any delay pushes Canada’s herds nearer to extinction. Without immediate action, scientists say, 30 percent of the country’s already-diminished boreal caribou population could disappear within the next 15 years.

That’s why it was reassuring to meet with federal officials who appreciate the cascade of environmental and social benefits that would result from preserving boreal caribou habitat. It would bring Canada closer to achieving the national biodiversity goals it set in 2015, including a commitment to conserve at least 17 percent of its territory as protected areas by 2020. Maintaining the health and efficacy of this gargantuan carbon sink would also be a cornerstone of Canada’s effort under the Paris Accord to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

But it’s clear that no boreal forest protection plan will succeed without the full participation of Indigenous communities, the original and sovereign caretakers of the Canadian boreal. Any decisions about how to protect and manage this land must be made jointly by representatives of federal and provincial governments and indigenous peoples. Groups like the Indigenous Leadership Initiative have already offered a blueprint to help the Trudeau government repair and strengthen the relationship between Ottawa and First Nations by honoring the unique and unbreakable bond between indigenous peoples and the land.

It’s a rare and lucky thing when you look more closely at what you’ve perceived as a problem and instead see a golden opportunity. That’s the real story of Canada’s wide, majestic, imperiled boreal forest. When it receives the protection it needs and deserves, the benefits will be returned to Canada a thousandfold.

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