Natural climate solutions could offset 11 per cent of Canada’s emissions by 2030: report

Study published in Science Advances finds protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, such as wetlands, forests and grasslands, could help Canada meet its climate goals

This story is part of Carbon Cache, an ongoing series about nature-based climate solutions.

A new report, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, lays out a pathway for Canada to offset 11 per cent of its emissions annually through natural climate solutions, such as protecting grasslands and other carbon-rich landscapes. 

Overall, the study’s more than three dozen authors found Canada has the potential to offset 78 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2030. 

That’s what Nature United’s director of strategic partnerships, Amanda Reed, described with a chuckle as a “really big number.”

“It represents about 11 per cent of all of Canada’s emissions,” she explained. “It’s definitely significant.”

Put in context, it’s the equivalent of the carbon pollution stemming from powering all the homes in Canada for three years, or the equivalent of the annual emissions emitted from all heavy industries in the country in 2018.

Over the next nine years, the report estimates natural climate solutions could result in nearly 400 megatonnes of mitigated carbon pollution combined.

The report is what Nature United, the conservation organization that has spearheaded research into the impacts of natural climate solutions, calls “the first-ever comprehensive evaluation of the potential of nature to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.”

As the report notes, “unlike other nascent carbon capture technologies, [natural climate solutions] are broadly scalable and deployable now.” The implementation of natural climate solutions in addition to existing plans, the report adds, “could help Canada to meet or exceed its climate goals.”

For Tyson Atleo, a hereditary chief-in-line of the Ahousaht Nation and natural climate solutions program director for Nature United, the report underscores the importance of a close relationship with natural landscapes. 

“It is so critical that we steward our relationships to natural resources,” he told The Narwhal. “We’re being provided benefits that aren’t always immediately apparent.”

Kaska land guardians Taylor Roades
Kaska land guardians pose by the Liard River in northern B.C. The Kaska have proposed a 40,000-square-kilometre Indigenous Protected Area. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Biggest potential in protecting existing landscapes

The report identifies 24 “pathways” to the mitigation of carbon pollution through natural climate solutions, from cover cropping to wetland restoration to manure management to tree planting.

The climate benefits described in the report come in a variety of forms, broken down in the study into three categories: protection, restoration and management.

Protection has increasingly emerged as an important tool in mitigating carbon pollution.

Over the past few hundred years, huge swaths of Canada’s landscape have been altered dramatically to make way for new uses, known as “conversion.”

Native grasslands have been converted to fields of canola or taken up by urban sprawl. Peatlands have been converted into the footprints of oilsands mines. Forests have been cut down for timber resources.

“Avoiding grassland conversion … represents the single largest opportunity” in Canada in 2030, according to the report. The carbon pollution mitigation potential of grasslands, it adds, is enormous. 

According to the report, preventing the conversion of 2.5 million hectares of native grasslands and grazing lands across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba could mitigate 12.7 megatonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2030.

Canada native prairie grasslands map
The original extent of Canada’s native prairie grasslands. Between 75 and 90 per cent of the grasslands have been eradicated. A new report finds that by preventing the conversion of 2.5 million hectares of native grasslands and grazing lands, Canada could mitigate 12.7 megatonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2030. Map: Alicia Carvalho / The Narwhal

The notion of grassland conversion often stirs up images of early Canadian farm life — prairie farmers, ploughing the soil by hand, ox or tractor. But grassland conversion continues, and new cropland is created every year in Canada, at least part of it from otherwise undisturbed — and therefore carbon-storing — grasslands.

According to figures cited in the report, cropland area in Canada increased by nearly 13 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

“We can’t just invest in restoration, we have to invest in protection,” Reed said, noting “it’s going to take partnerships between crown and Indigenous governments and industry.”

Carbon credit programs ‘cherry on top’ to incentivize farmers to conserve landscapes

Carbon pricing is highlighted in the report as an important component to incentivize or make possible adoption of natural climate solutions. The report finds a third of the potential mitigation from natural climate solutions is possible at a carbon price of $50 per tonne, the level planned in Canada in 2022.

But, the report noted, “even if costs are high and mitigation potential is low,” the benefits can be substantial in other ways, like benefits to biodiversity and human health — but difficult to quantify.

Reed noted that collaborations with governments to create incentive programs to ensure protection of carbon-rich landscapes will be paramount.

There are some early examples. In a pilot project from the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, landowners can be compensated for the carbon benefits of protecting grasslands. 

Under the pilot project, landowners who sign conservation easements to protect grasslands for a fixed period of time can receive compensation for the stored carbon. 

Those extra funds are what the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association’s executive director, Cedric MacLeod, describes as a “cherry on top of the sundae” for landowners conserving grasslands.

William Singer
Api’soomaahka, or William Singer, is working with Blood Tribe Land Management in southern Alberta to convert his cultivated land back to native grasslands. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Agricultural sector has ‘the most mitigation potential in 2030’: report

The report found nearly half of the potential for carbon pollution mitigation from natural climate solutions in 2030 would stem from agricultural lands.

“There’s a ton of potential in agriculture,” Reed said.

The majority of the pathways to reducing carbon pollution from agricultural lands stem from what have been dubbed management strategies.

From more efficient application of fertilizer to planting cover crops, it’s increasingly been noted that the way farmers work matters when it comes to climate impacts. And improved management practices have the potential to reduce carbon pollution.

The report includes numerous examples. Using cover crops on an additional 5.6 million hectares of land in Alberta, for example, could lead to 2.3 megatonnes of annual carbon mitigation in 2030. Adopting the practice of “tree-intercropping,” planting additional trees in rows among crops and hay lands, on 439,000 hectares in Ontario could lead to 2.2 megatonnes of annual carbon mitigation. Integrating tree crops within livestock grazing and foraging on 985,518 hectares on across Canada — a practice known as silvopasture —  could lead to 2.8 megatonnes of annual carbon mitigation. The list goes on. 

Combined, the potential of the agricultural sector to adopt natural climate solutions as highlighted in the report adds up to 37.4 megatonnes of mitigated carbon annually in 2030 — nearly half of the total potential identified.

Paul Thoroughood farmer
There’s a huge potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through strong management practices in agriculture. New funding announced in the federal budget aims to provide financial incentives to farmers like Paul Thoroughgood to adopt climate-friendly practices — what the government dubs “agricultural climate solutions.” Photo: Sara Hylton / The Narwhal

Indigenous stewardship of landscapes has ‘planetary implications’

The stewardship of Canada’s landscapes extends far beyond agriculture, and Indigenous leadership across the country has long been working to create areas safeguarded from conversion to industry, farmland or other uses.

The report highlights the importance of opportunities to partner with Indigenous communities, noting “Indigenous-led [natural climate solutions] provide an opportunity for reconciliation and reliance on time-proven and effective approaches for land stewardship and biodiversity conservation.”

“Reconciling with the natural environment is critical to reconciliation with Indigenous communities,” Atleo said, but added that “true reconciliation starts with how it’s expressed from the communities themselves.”

In natural climate solutions, he sees what he calls “opportunity for our communities to express our cultural values and lead in work, such as the protection of ecosystems.”

The inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, the report said, is essential for the “successful implementation” of natural climate solutions.

It’s a concept emphasized by Indigenous leaders across Canada.

jordan kaska land guardian
Jordan, a Kaska land guardian, conducts water sampling along the Kechika River in northern B.C. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“Indigenous people are creating huge protected areas” that include huge carbon sinks, Steven Nitah, lead negotiator for the Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, said at an event hosted by The Narwhal last month. These areas have “planetary implications,” he added.

Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) are increasingly gaining traction across Canada. “Any IPCA being considered will naturally include opportunities to preserve those ecosystems that we’ve identified as having such significant potential to contribute to the overall natural climate solutions [opportunity] in Canada,” Atleo said.

Valerie Courtois, the director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, also at The Nawhal’s event, pointed to the importance of valuing the role Indigenous communities are already playing in conserving carbon-rich landscapes.

“We’ve got people who have cared for carbon resources that are benefiting the whole world,” she said at the event. “We should start to value the role that people have had in protecting carbon resources.” 

Federal support for natural climate solutions across party lines

In last year’s fall economic statement, the federal government deemed natural climate solutions to be “among the most affordable climate action governments can take.”

At the time, the government announced nearly $4 billion in funding of projects related to natural climate solutions.

As Reed pointed out, support for natural climate solutions appears to be largely escaping partisan divides, with the federal Conservative party also highlighting the approach in its April environment plan.

“We will invest an additional $3 billion between now and 2030 in natural climate solutions focused on management of forest, crop and grazing lands and restoration of grasslands, wetlands and forests,” the Conservative party’s plan stated. “These solutions can have multiple benefits: not only will they help sequester carbon, but they can also provide protection for communities and additional benefits for wildlife.”

The Liberal government furthered its financial support in the 2021 budget, announcing $270 million in funding for “agricultural climate solutions” intended to incentivize the protection of wetlands and adoption of climate-friendly practices like cover cropping, improved fertilizer management and rotational grazing.

Barley crop Saskatchewan
Natural climate solutions have attracted support across federal party lines, with the Conservative’s environment plan including a $3 billion commitment to funding solutions between now and 2030 . Sara Hylton/The Narwhal

Quantifying the benefits of natural climate solutions is ‘energizing’: project lead

The report highlights the effects of a changing climate that Canadians are already seeing: thawing permafrost, flooded farmland and the death of trees from drought, fires and infestations of pests.

Natural climate solutions alone, Reed cautioned, are not enough to ensure Canada meets its climate commitments, noting reductions in fossil fuel use, energy efficiency improvements and the greening of transportation all also play a role.

“It has to be one piece of that larger puzzle,” she said. 

For Atleo, the report is “energizing” when it comes to his work on natural climate solutions.

“It shows the potential for Canada to really play a significant role globally in climate leadership,” Atleo said. “It’s an opportunity to reset how we as a country view our relationship to natural systems.”

“The report reinforces the lessons from Indigenous cultures like my own,” he added.

“We’ve known for a very long time the importance of carefully maintaining our relationship to the life-giving forces of nature.”

The Carbon Cache series is funded by Metcalf Foundation. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, the foundation has no editorial input into the articles.

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