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The federal Liberal’s 2019 election pledge to plant two billion trees in 10 years has barely sprouted.

A recent audit found the program has missed its targets to date, with less than 3 per cent of the promised total in the ground, and far too many are ending up in single-species tree farms, rather than future forests.

Tellingly, the endeavour is expected to create more greenhouse gas emissions than it captures until 2031.

The 2 Billion Trees program is an important commitment, and Ottawa needs to make adjustments to succeed. As auditor Jerry DeMarco, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, noted, there is no solution to climate change and biodiversity loss that does not involve our forests.

To plant a tree – or two billion – is an action for future generations. But like so many Liberal promises on climate action, ambition has not been matched by sufficient action. This initiative is supposed to use the power of nature to help fight climate change: New forests can absorb carbon, and they can enhance biodiversity. In urban areas, tree canopies can mitigate against extreme heat, improving human health.

The $3.2-billion program formally launched in 2021 and although it was expected that it would take time to line up land, seedlings and tree planters, even the modest targets for the first two years have not been reached.

The targets were not unreasonable: In the time since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his plan, British Columbia has planted about one billion trees, separate from the federal initiative. With the massive forest losses owing to beetle kill and wildfires, the province’s land base could easily accommodate far more. Before this season’s wildfires began, B.C. had about 2.7 million hectares waiting to be replanted – half the size Nova Scotia, and close to the same as burned in 2017 and 2018, two of B.C’s worst-ever fire years.

The vast wilderness in B.C., waiting for replanting, is just one province. There are opportunities across the country.

The federal plan hinges mostly on cost-shared partnerships, and that has proved to be a vulnerability. To achieve its goals, Ottawa needs co-operation from provinces, territories, local governments, Indigenous communities, plus farmers and other private landowners. The key partnerships are with the provinces, and those have been slow to blossom. B.C. and Alberta have recently signed on. Ontario and Quebec are among the holdouts, a major risk to the program’s success.

In the best-case scenario, the audit found, the program was only expected to reach 2.3 per cent of its overall goal after the first two years. And the delays will just compound. Canadian nurseries told the auditors that they would require up to two years of preparation before planting seeds, and one to eight more years before seedlings would be available for planting. They need commitments before ramping up.

Once in the ground, it takes another decade before the new trees start to deliver net benefits to Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction ambitions. Ottawa’s targets, set at the beginning of the program, were to reduce emissions by up to two megatonnes annually by 2030. Since then, Natural Resources Canada has concluded the program would be a net greenhouse gas source until 2031, because of initial emissions caused by site preparation and planting activities. The goal by 2050 is to cut emissions by 12 MT a year – 1.8 per cent of Canada’s current level of 670 MT.

Since nature can be capricious, the audit called for more consistent monitoring to be sure that seedlings are thriving after planting.

Finally, plantations of a single species of tree are handy for the forest industry if the intent is to cut the trees down in the future. But one of the goals of this program is to preserve and protect biodiversity, and that means Canada needs to be more thoughtful about what it is planting.

A report by the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, released in March, warned that almost one in four tree species in Canada is now at risk. The threats include pests and diseases, land development, and the growing impacts of climate change. This only underscores the urgency to get this program right.

This week, much of Western Canada is facing extreme wildfire hazards, with smoke from numerous out of control fires choking the skies in Calgary and thousands evacuated from their homes. There is work to be do. Ottawa needs to motivate the provinces to start putting shovels in the ground.

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