Apr 27, 2023 | Joanna Eyquem

I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree…” Joyce Kilmer, 1913. 

The opening line of Kilmer’s poem is an ode to nature. Over the years, his critics labelled his Tree poem “simplistic, dated, syrupy, sentimental and sappy.” Climate change and biodiversity loss have forced a reckoning, not only of how we think of trees but of how we think of forest ecosystems and our relationships with nature.

In the last few decades, greater attention has been paid to the role of trees in mitigating climate change. We now specifically value trees for their role in capturing carbon in the atmosphere to slow down climate change. Forest planting has become a go-to strategy in striving toward net-zero climate goals and part of the toolkit that is termed “nature-based solutions.” 

What now needs to be more recognized is the multitude of roles that forests play in our well-being, including helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change. Recently, the urgent need to prepare for increasing climate risks was formalized in Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy, and nature-based solutions are part of the answer. For example, forests can help soak up, store and slow down water upstream to reduce downstream flood risk. Urban forests are also part of our toolbox of measures to tackle extreme heat. While the terms “climate adaptation” and “climate resilience” are becoming more mainstream in our climate action lexicon, we need to ensure they receive the same attention as reducing emissions, including in our conversations around trees. 

An outstanding issue is that humans are stubbornly inclined to see the trees and miss the functioning forest ecosystem.

Living things within an ecosystem, such as plants, animals, and bacteria, share interdependencies with non-living things like water, soil, and the atmosphere. We cannot only focus on the biological elements (like trees) and ignore the systems that support them [see stream systems image below]. We also need to manage at the scale of natural systems. Without governance at scales that make sense for nature, like watersheds, our jurisdictional divisions may frustrate our adaptation efforts. All levels of government have roles to play to really scale up nature-based solutions, as outlined in a recent report by the Intact Centre on Climate

Watershed Graphic

We also need to be less “siloed” in how we measure the return on our green investments. Many nature-based solution initiatives are focused on singular objectives rather than the full range of benefits they provide to people. For example, at the federal level, we have the Nature Smart Climate Solutions (NSCS) fund, which is mainly mitigation driven, as well as the Natural Infrastructure Fund, which is more adaptation driven. These funds have differing objectives, but both invest in nature-based solutions that generate multiple benefits. The challenge is to stack up and account for the full range of benefits in one shot.

Many projects, including those led by Canada’s Forest Trust, in fact, bridge both climate and nature action, contributing to climate mitigation, climate adaptation AND the reversal of biodiversity loss. This bridge is reflected in several targets of the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework

Once multiple benefits are identified, they need to be factored into economic decision-making. While governments and businesses may agree in principle that nature is important, “it is still relatively rare to see nature’s services routinely accounted for in investment decisions, asset management or accounting. As a result, decisions may not be economically sound in the long-term”

I am very encouraged to see the momentum we have in Canada toward really making nature count. As part of my contribution, I am co-leading a working group with KPMG Canada and the Natural Assets Initiative, bringing economists, accountants, financial officers, and environmental experts to this discussion. We are currently working together on guidance for valuing and accounting for natural assets in financial reporting. 

A standardized, consistent and transparent approach will help us account for and manage natural assets and ultimately make better decisions. As a first step towards standardization, this summer, CSA Group will release a national standard that can be used to inventory natural assets, so watch this space!

Over and above these national standards, there is more we can all do to deepen our awareness of nature’s value in our lives. Walking my children to school in my urban Montreal neighbourhood, we pass by trees with small blue tags attached.

These tags provide information such as the type of tree and a breakdown of e benefits these trees provide to humans, including carbon sequestration, air pollution reduction and stormwater management.

The tags are something we can all see – supporting the message that, while nature may be “priceless,” its financial value can no longer be set at zero.