IPOLITICS-Shawn McCarthy. Published on June 3, 2020 12:00 am
“Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau can be front and centre in that green stimulus effort by dramatically expanding a program that pays farmers to conserve and reclaim wetlands and other natural spaces on marginal agricultural land.”
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau can be front and centre in that green stimulus effort by dramatically expanding a program that pays farmers to conserve and reclaim wetlands and other natural spaces on marginal agricultural land.
Farmers are facing myriad economic threats as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and programs that pay them to be better environmental stewards would provide another stream of income to help them survive and prosper.
At the same time, wetlands reclamation and reforestation would create jobs to replace ones that may be permanently lost in the broader economy.
Other ministers will have to play their roles in making nature-based solutions a major plank in the government’s climate strategy and its recovery plan.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna can ensure that projects that protect or reclaim wetlands, grasslands and forests are included in her multi-billion-dollar infrastructure envelope. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson can lead efforts to establish the economic value — as well as environmental benefits — of nature conservation.
In May, 43 environmental organizations delivered a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging his government to finance natural infrastructure projects as part of the country’s post-COVID-19 recovery.
Destruction of Canada’s natural spaces is too often seen as a cost-free proposition, similar to the dangerous practice of dumping carbon into the atmosphere.
However, nature-based solutions are an important component in the battle against climate change, both to reduce emissions and to adapt to the severe weather that will result from global warming.
There is a growing movement to put a price on environmental goods and services, and find ways to generate revenue from natural assets.
Soil stores carbon but releases it when heavily tilled. Growing trees absorb carbon dioxide. Other benefits include water filtration, flood protection, species-at-risk habitat and maintenance of pollinator populations.
Farmers benefit financially when governments and corporations are willing to pay for those services. Rural municipalities and Indigenous communities can also participate in programs that trade on the financial benefits that accrue from conservation.
The idea of putting a price on nature is troubling for some people. It suggests that the value of a wetland or woodland is limited to the utility it holds for human populations, rather than having intrinsic importance for the health of all species that inhabit the planet.
It is that human-centric, economic perspective that has resulted in the environmental peril of climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
However, we have learned the hard way that whatever isn’t assigned an economic price is viewed as worthless, and hence disregarded. Acknowledging the value of ecological goods and services is a necessary part of the effort to reverse our environmental negligence.
The Liberal government already has announced a target to conserve 25 per cent of the country’s land for nature by 2025, with a goal of 30 per cent by 2030. That commitment often clashes with other priorities, including housing development, resource industry projects and farming practices.
In Alberta, the United Conservative Party government has announced plans for coal mining in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in areas now protected as parkland. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative government has proposed amendments to species-at-risk rules that would allow housing developers to pay into a fund in lieu of protecting critical habitat.
Regulation is one tool to protect critical ecosystems. Providing payment for ecological goods and services is a complementary one that rewards landowners, and local communities.
In a paper written for Corporate Knights magazine, authors Ralph Torrie and Celine Bak propose that the federal government embark on a 10-year, $4-billion effort to preserve or reclaim 10-million acres of marginal land for natural areas that would store some 22 million tones of carbon annually by 2025.
Ottawa could scale up an existing program, ALUS Canada, that works with farmers and ranchers in six provinces to conserve less-productive land for environmental purposes.
ALUS currently has 27,000 acres set aside with payments coming to landowners from a variety of sources. The organization is ready and able to scale up its operations should the federal government agree to finance it, ALUS senior vice-president Lara Ellis said in an interview.
Another promising avenue is the plan under Ottawa’s Clean Fuel Standard to allow industrial GHG emitters who are covered by climate regulations to purchase “offsets” from farmers and Indigenous communities that are land guardians.
In that case, the GHG savings must be verified and certified, and the emitter essentially pays for the right to emission credits that can be applied to their own regulated operations.
At the same time, groups like WWF-Canada and the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation are working with rural municipalities to assess the potential for natural infrastructure to help with flood mitigation, soil erosion and nutrient loading in lakes.
The Intact Centre worked with the Insurance Bureau of Canada and Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development on a 2018 report outlining the potential for natural infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
It noted that Canada continues to lose wetlands, forests and vegetation. Southern Ontario, for example, has lost 95 per cent of its original wetlands. Clearly, more needs to be done, the study concluded.
“We need to conserve what we have, restore what we’ve lost, and build what we must,” Intact Centre’s director of climate resilience, Natalia Moudrak, said.