The surprising obstacle in Canada’s climate fight: land shortage

Aug 1, 2023 | | OPED

Originally Published in The Hill Times (July 27, 2023)

In the fight against climate change, Canadians may be surprised by the land shortage. When then-natural resources minister Seamus O’Regan announced the $3.2-billion, 10-year 2 Billion Trees project in 2020, he emphasized that “There is no path to net-zero carbon emissions that doesn’t involve our forests.” Canada’s potential to impact climate adaptation and mitigation globally is significant, but progress has been slow. Canada’s Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner, Jerry DeMarco, warned that at the current pace, fewer than four per cent of the promised trees will be planted by 2030. Securing appropriate land for forest planting is one of the program’s significant hurdles.

For several years, Canada’s forest cover has held steady at about 42 per cent of land area. Due to new approaches in forestry, logging now represents less than one per cent of deforestation while localized reforestation and afforestation projects continue. However, climate change’s direct impacts like infestations, flooding, and wildfires still threaten our nation’s forest cover. The 2 Billion Trees project aimed to plant two billion trees over a decade, resulting in over 1.1 million hectares of new forest cover, twice the size of Prince Edward Island. Yet, in an average year, wildfires burn about 2.5 million hectares in Canada—equivalent to four Prince Edward Islands. So far, Canada has lost at least 11 million hectares to wildfires this year alone, more than 19 Prince Edward Islands.

Canada must plant more trees than are lost

Over 80 per cent of Canada’s surface area is uninhabited, with 89 per cent being publicly owned. However, the issue lies with land jurisdiction. Approximately 41 per cent is federally controlled, with large portions in the northern territories, where the terrain is unsuitable for forest planting. Provinces control the remaining 48 per cent of public-owned land. NRCan’s 2 Billion Trees administrators have been negotiating bilateral ‘agreements in principle’ with provinces and territories, but three years in, only half have signed on, while prominent players Ontario and Quebec are not yet on board.

The slow pace of the 2 Billion Tree project shows the lack of a comprehensive national land-use accord is holding us back. Reflecting on criticism faced by justice minister David Lametti for inadvertently suggesting the idea of looking at provinces’ constitutional authority over natural resources, we clarify that we are not suggesting revisiting constitutional powers. Land use policy is complex and sensitive for provincial governments. We point to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s research, suggesting a multi-departmental and multi-jurisdictional approach to understand and manage land use synergies and trade-offs. Brazil, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, and New Zealand are all working to improve the coherence of their national strategies and plans, enhancing coordination and aligning policies for biodiversity, climate mitigation, food, and land-use objectives.

Our global competitiveness is also on the line 

Transitioning to a sustainable economy is a global race. When U.S. President Joe Biden announced a multi-billion-dollar investment in a clean energy future, people called for a “made-in-Canada” response. Transitioning faster to meet a market desperate for sustainable goods and services offers opportunities for Canadians to develop our forests sustainably, beyond timber production. Innovation in bioenergy, technology, non-wood forest products, and ecosystem infrastructure services like soil improvement or flood mitigation is crucial. Emerging green jobs will respond to these demands.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson acknowledged the challenges of the 2 Billion Trees project, calling it a “marathon rather than a sprint.” Considering the scope and urgency, Canadians must expedite collaboration among stakeholders—including provinces, territories, Indigenous leaders, and industry representatives—for nationwide solutions. Scaling Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, and setting common principles for responsible resource development are among the strategies. Developing shared incentives and credits for small private landowners can encourage their participation. A more coherent and accelerated approach to the voluntary carbon credit market and biodiversity investment opportunities is also essential. A cross-Canada land-use strategy, free from short-term election cycles, will leverage our natural resources for a sustainable economy.

Canada’s fragmented land-use approach hinders seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity with viable solutions beneath our feet. Addressing the land “shortage” and enhancing collaboration are vital for safeguarding the environment, achieving climate goals, and embracing an emerging green economy.

Gary Zed,  founder and CEO of Canada’s Forest Trust Corporation.