There is no path to carbon-zero without forests

Jun 20, 2022 | Published on The Hill Times | OPED

By: Gary Zed, Founder and CEO of Canada’s Forest Trust

With higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, rising sea levels, and intensifying weather-related disasters, the threat of climate change to communities and humanity continues to grow. At the same time, Canadian industries, businesses, and individual households remain among the world’s worst greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters. In 2020, Canada’s total GHG emissions were 672 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e). To offset these GHG emissions, Canada would need to plant 11.1 billion tree seedlings and grow these tree seedlings for 10 years.

So, within this context, how can Canada reduce its massive GHG emissions, and achieve a net-zero future by 2050? The Government of Canada is combating climate change with an arsenal of measures, most notable the new Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System. As a country rich in natural resources, we must also leverage a powerful and proven force for change: our vast and valuable forests.

On June 8th, 2022, the Government of Canada announced a new important and forward-thinking market mechanism – the Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System (GHGOCS) – for offsetting and helping to cut GHG emissions. In addition, the GHGOCS will help to stimulate cleantech innovation and private sector investment in nature-based and other GHG emission reduction solutions, which will keep Canada competitive in a decarbonizing global economy. Under this new system, participants can pursue projects – following a federally developed GHG offset protocol and requirements – and generate a tradeable GHG offset credit for each tonne of GHG emissions they reduce or remove from the atmosphere. In turn, participants can then sell that GHG offset credit to help others meet their GHG emissions reduction goals. Currently, this protocol only applies to federal landfills, but protocols for other activities – like forest management – are on the way.

As complex, biodiverse ecosystems, forests have a widespread impact by regulating ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, playing a critical role in the carbon cycle, supplying goods and services that drive sustainable growth, and creating high-quality employment opportunities for Canadians. As our first line of defence against GHG emissions, trees are also a powerful natural and proven carbon sequestration technology. By planting more trees and preserving forests, we can restore habitats, increase biodiversity, purify the air, create employment in green jobs, and ease growing climate anxiety. Considering these broad effects of trees and forests on our climate, economy, and society, the anticipated protocol on forest management must consider impacts beyond trees and forests.

Every forest has a set of unique tree species that are just right for the local climate, precipitation, soil conditions, drainage, and land history. From Canadian Heritage and Environment & Climate Change to Mental Health & Addictions, forest building touches 20 different departments across the Government of Canada. Consequently, any protocol that the federal government considers, must take a holistic approach that integrates environmental, economic, and social concerns and knowledge from all stakeholders, including Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and new innovations in science and technology. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating an inefficient and ineffective forest management protocol that does not maximize the potential of our forests.

For a GHGOCS forest management protocol to achieve its climate, environmental, economic and social objectives, obviously, it should incentivize the investment in rapidly and significantly expanding Canada’s forests at scale to protect and improve biodiversity, regulate ecosystems, and sequester vast amounts of greenhouse gases. In addition, a forest management protocol should encourage the development of sustainable and responsible lumber forests. While growing, trees in lumber forests capture greenhouse gases, support biodiversity by providing habitat for wildlife and regulate ecosystems. After harvesting, lumber forest trees continue to sequester carbon long-term as construction materials in the form of mass-timber replacing concrete and steel and providing high-quality jobs in the construction industry. Efficient, sustainable and, responsibly harvested lumber forests also protect the preservation of primary forests.

Climate change is the single greatest threat to humanity. Reducing Canada’s GHG emissions is critical to building a strong economy, a flourishing environment, and a clean, resilient future. To date, the Canadian government has promised to combat the climate crisis and achieve net-zero by 2050. With robust protocols, collective action, and the power of forests, Canada’s new Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System can help get us there.

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