Canada's official plan for addressing climate change overlooks important avenues for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through farming and forestry, a new report has found.
The result suggests the federal government could significantly improve its pledge to the United Nations before climate talks set for later this year by pursuing more efficient land-use policies on top of the commitments it has already made to reduce emissions in the energy and transportation sectors.
Because of its vast geography relative to population size "Canada is in a unique position" to reduce emissions through policies that require significant actions from sectors such as farming and forestry, said Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, a co-author of the report and an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization that advocates for sound science-based policy making.
The equivalent of 17 per cent of Canada's current greenhouse gas emissions stem from agricultural and forestry-related activities. Yet land use is mentioned only in passing in Canada's intentionally nationally determined contribution (INDC) – the submission to the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change in which federal governments state their reduction targets.
Canada's plan, which promises a 30-per-cent reduction in emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2030, states that it will exclude the effects of "natural disturbances," such as fires and beetle infestations, in its accounting of greenhouse gas emissions from forests. Ms. Ferretti-Gallon called the position "alarming" because it disregards improved forest management as a way to build up Canada's capacity to store carbon.
In the agricultural sphere, Canada could do more to encourage reductions in the release of methane from manure, and nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted when fertilizer is over-applied.
Barbara Harvey, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, said the federal government has provided $190-million to support forest-sector transformation and has directed resources and support to assist developing countries with their land and forest sectors.
She added that "Canada recognizes the importance of the land and forest sector in tackling climate change," and that its approach is aligned with that of the United States.
Ms. Ferretti-Gallon said the United States has also underplayed the role of land-use policy in battling climate change, and that Morocco and Ethiopia, two developing nations that were also included in the analysis, offered a more detailed accounting of land use in their INDCs than Canada did.
"We've seen a trend over the last few months of developing countries addressing land use more directly and placing a higher priority there," she said.
Overall, the new report calls Canada's plan "problematic with regard to transparency, action and ambition."
The assessment adds to criticisms from the European-based project called Climate Action Tracker, which this month rated Canada's INDC as "inadequate," along with six others, including submissions from Australia, Japan and Russia.
The main reason for the rating is that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions Canada has pledged to cut is not enough to keep the planet from warming by more than the internationally set goal of 2 C without other countries having to do even more, said Louise Jeffery, a researcher with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
"We have also assessed Canada's current policies as being insufficient to achieve the emissions cuts needed to reach even the inadequately rated target," she said.
Federal opposition leaders on the campaign trail have repeatedly said they would welcome the chance to take a bolder goal to Paris this November, when nations gather in hopes of reaching a global climate deal.
Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said no nation would undertake actions on climate change "that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth."
However, policies aimed at reducing agricultural emissions, if properly implemented, could help farmers with the bottom line, said Sean Smukler, a University of British Columbia ecologist whose research includes comparing emissions from different types of soil management systems.
"I would like to see incentives for farmers to participate in some kind of trading mechanism or just incentives to adopt better management practices," he said.