Bill Morris was the president of Accenture Canada until his retirement in 2019. John Lounds is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
As concern about climate change reaches new levels, Canada has a rare opportunity to be a bigger percentage of the climate solution than it is a percentage of the problem.
It’s simple math. We emit 1.6 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, but we possess a much greater share of the globe’s pristine habitats. Specifically, we boast 9 per cent of the forests and one-quarter of the wetlands remaining on Earth. Ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and grasslands play a critical role in sequestering and storing carbon. Recent studies show that nature can provide around one-third of the climate solution. With our abundance of the world’s natural assets, we have the opportunity and responsibility to champion nature’s role in fighting climate change by protecting and restoring our forests, wetlands and grasslands.
Nature is not the whole answer, but it could be a consequential part of addressing what for many is now an intractable state of affairs. Some will debate whether it can solve a third of the problem but given that nature only attracts 3 per cent of climate capital, there’s serious upside and opportunity.
A nature-based approach offers a menu of solutions for removing carbon from the atmosphere while we wait for advanced technologies to become viable. This is why the federal government promises to plant two billion trees over the next decade, helping Canada meet its 2050 commitments. Planting trees is a proven, scale-able remedy for absorbing carbon. In addition, it will help to cool urban areas, create buffers along our waterways and restore wildlife corridors in Southern Canada. We should get on with it, ensuring it’s sustainable and biodiverse.
Beyond trees, we know agriculture accounts for 8.5 per cent of Canada’s emissions and offers potential for atmospheric carbon removal. We need to support farmers and ranchers with programs that incentivize carbon storage such as cover crops and conserving natural grasslands for pasture. Conservation solutions in Canada’s peatlands are vital for these tremendous carbon sinks, particularly when permafrost starts to melt. Our coastlines and wetlands also offer natural solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change such as floods. What’s missing is a prioritized list of answers for Canada accompanied by how much of the problem each can solve, and at what cost.
While Ottawa intends to spend at least $3-billion on planting trees and land conservation over the next 10 years, what gets less attention is how large corporations are emerging as funders of nature-based solutions. Each week we hear corporations announcing net-zero carbon targets with nature playing an important role. When its employees spoke up, Amazon announced a net-zero target and US$100-million to restore forests and wetlands. The global airline industry is setting emission reduction targets and offsetting carriers’ remaining carbon. Maple Leaf Foods and Canadian Natural Resources have comprehensive plans including nature-based solutions to support their own net-zero commitments. Between public and private funders – and enabled by the sustainable finance movement – there is now a growing demand for nature-based solutions.
How can Canada lead? We can continue to set high standards for sustainable forestry, protect and restore our southern forests, wetlands and grasslands, and work with Indigenous and local communities in the north to conserve large areas of natural habitats. We could collaborate with our world-leading banks, insurers and pension funds to create deal structures that are compelling to our landowners. We might even create a carbon offset market that’s trusted, transparent and efficient. And since this would be fertile ground for Canadian scientists and technologists, how about an institute for nature-based solutions?
One challenge is ensuring we don’t sacrifice emissions reductions by enabling organizations and individuals to simply offset their footprints. But set aside the challenges. We should jump on this now. If one large, sparsely populated country can demonstrate how to leverage nature for solutions, we can improve the planet’s prospects and create a new, clean industry at the same time.
Albert Einstein famously said that “we shall need a substantially new way of thinking if humanity is to survive." He also said “look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better." When it comes to nature, Canada is poised to lead the way.