Hi, Mother Nature? We have a problem...

·16 min read

The yellowed grass in the five-acre field pokes through clumps of snow. Nearby, small trees line the Marsh River, which doesn’t so much flow in mid-December as freeze in small puddles along the creek bed.

And while this grass patch is underwhelming in appearance, it demonstrates an important part of the provincial government’s plan to address climate change through nature-based solutions and conservation projects.

The approach is simple, and allows closer inspection of where and how preserving and restoring nature — from reclaiming farmers’ fields to tree-planting projects — fits into the bigger picture. However, it’s important to understand that while nature-based solutions have a role, they can’t be mistaken for a silver bullet that will solve the climate crisis.

Harold Janzen’s truck slips through the mud as he skirts along the edge of his fields to get to the grass patch. Janzen is a third-generation grain farmer east of Morris but he is being paid not to seed, not to fertilize and not to harvest this land, but rather just to allow it exist as a natural ecosystem buffer along the Marsh River.

Janzen farmed the land until last year and estimates the area would flood two or three out of every five years, washing away all of the input needed to yield a crop: soil, fertilizer, seed.

In 2019, the Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District became one of the first recipients of provincial funding provided through the Conservation Trust and the Growing Outcomes in Watersheds Trust (GROW); two of the three funds — totalling an endowment of $204 million — established by the Pallister government between 2018 and 2020.

The interest earned on those funds is tapped to foot the bill each year for various conservation and water-security projects selected and tracked by the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp.

Since only the growth in the fund is used, it will serve as a perpetual source of conservation funding in the province.

After the district secured funding in 2019, the organization approached Janzen and other area farmers, offering $100 per acre, per year to essentially do nothing with that land.

It’s a far cry from what he would earn in a good year if he could pull a crop from it, Janzen says, but it’s a guaranteed payday instead of rolling the dice.

“We spent a lot of money to grow the crop to end up losing it,” he says.

“We farmers are essentially gamblers. We’d put in the crop and hope to get something out of it. But when the odds are against you, it’s nice that we’re able to get some funding to offset some of our costs so we can afford to set aside this land and grow forages that prevent erosion.”

To get started, Janzen seeded the land with hearty grasses, which he can harvest once a year for hay. But that’s it.

“When the waters come, the grasses are perennial, so they stay and the soil doesn’t erode. There’s no inputs in that area, so no fertilizer’s going into the river,” says Seine Rat Roseau Watershed District manager Jodi Goerzen.

The district’s budget has increased fivefold because of the trusts. Goerzen says it’s difficult to find enough people interested in participating in projects to make use of all the available funding.

Currently, she’s overseeing 64 projects. Some are more complex and are meant to divert water in the case of floods. The hope is that the various efforts will provide an adaptation benefit in more-frequent weather extremes expected as a result of climate change.

“Basically, the outcomes of the GROW program in Manitoba are reduced flooding, improving water quality, improving climate resiliency, improving biodiversity and wildlife habitat, enhancing carbon storage and enhancing sustainable food production,” she says.

The research backs up those claims. However, investing in nature is only a small part of the climate-crisis solution.

Last May, when the GROW Trust administered more funding for watershed projects across southern Manitoba, Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen emphasized the emissions benefits of the project.

“Climate is all about conservation; they’re one and the same. When you sequester carbon in (environments), such as grasslands, rangelands, you are also doing climate mitigation there, too,” he says.

While some emissions are captured as landscapes return to their natural equilibrium, the potential magnitude shouldn’t be overstated. Exact amounts are difficult to pinpoint and research is ongoing. ​None of these projects have estimates attached for how much additional carbon is stored through conservation efforts.

“Sequestration is important, it’s real, we need to get as much carbon-organic matter into our soil as we can. But it’s relatively modest compared to the size of overall emissions from agriculture,” Darrin Qualman, director of climate policy for the National Farmers Union, said in a recent webinar.

This is why Tim Sopuck, CEO of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp., is more keen to focus on the climate-adaptation benefits, such as flood prevention, that these programs offer. Plus, all of the water-system benefits, along with his view that simply preserving natural habitats, is good in and of itself, he says.

“The focus of the trusts is really about getting into the agricultural landscape and re-naturalizing that landscape where we can. To not only deliver outcomes like carbon sequestration but outcomes of far more immediate interest and concern to Manitobans right now, which is things like water quality and water quantity, soil health,” Sopuck says.

In southern Manitoba, different approaches need to be taken with regard to conservation because a high percentage of the land is privately owned.

“It’s one of the most altered landscapes on the planet, if you think about what was there originally and what is there now,” he says. “And it’s a landscape where people struggle hard to make a living.”

Janzen says the trust cash makes it possible for him to rationalize the decision to restore the habitat in other sections of his land, too.

“Maybe not every farmer, but most farmers are conservationists. Some are more, some are less. But the last thing we want is nutrients to run off our field, our soils to erode,” Janzen says.

“The conservation trusts allow us to do a little bit more than what we have been doing.”

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Trees are by far the most-discussed nature-based climate solution by politicians of all stripes and at all levels.

Last October, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order committing his country to help protect and restore one trillion trees by 2030. In Winnipeg,

Mayor Brian Bowman has challenged residents to plant a million new trees to restore the city’s disappearing canopy and to advance municipal climate-change goals. The federal government has pledged to plant two billion additional trees this decade.

Ian Mauro, executive director of the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre, watches the farm-based projects and tree commitments with great optimism. Nature-based solutions are critical, he says, in order to achieve negative emissions in the second half of the century — what’s needed to constrain warming well below 2 C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change signed in 2016, commits governments to such actions, mandating them to take steps to conserve and enhance natural carbon reservoirs, or sinks, such as forests and oceans.

“There are some technologies that are coming out that are looking at being able to scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but trees do that already. And natural infrastructure will do that if it’s designed properly,” Mauro says.

The emphasis is on “designed properly.” Because while Canada’s forests are vast, they are not currently an asset in the climate-change fight.

Natural Resources Canada annually measures and estimates the amount of carbon absorbed and released by the country’s managed forests, which represent about 65 per cent of all of Canada’s forests. Increasingly, tree die-off due to drought, fires and pests is tanking the carbon-scrubbing performance.

In every year but two in the 1990s, Canada’s forests sequestered more carbon than they emitted. But it hasn’t happened since 2001.

In 2018, NRC estimates reached a new high, pegging emissions from Canada’s forests at 243.2 megatonnes of CO2. That rockets Canada’s forests past the oil-and-gas sector in magnitude of emissions.

It doesn’t get any attention because the forest’s emissions aren’t accounted for in the same way ​thanks, in large part, to how they’re regarded in international climate treaties.

For this reason, researchers such as David Keith are skeptical of the use of trees to mitigate emissions. Keith, a professor of both applied physics and public policy at Harvard, co-hosts a webinar series called Energy vs. Climate; a recent topic was nature-based climate solutions and where they fit into the climate policy puzzle.

“The climate problem is driven by CO2 being moved from the geosphere — from deep underground — by burning fossil fuels, where it goes into the atmosphere. Then, it can re-equilibrate between atmosphere, land biosphere (such as trees and soils), and the oceans. That happens quickly and it’s mostly out of our control,” Keith says.

In other words, moving carbon into trees and soils is better than leaving it in the atmosphere where it traps energy and warms the planet. But natural disturbances leave that stored carbon in a precarious state where rising threats — such as fires — can re-release it back into the atmosphere again.

Keith worries that while that shifting carbon from the atmosphere to trees and soils might help reduce atmospheric emissions in the short to medium term, it could come back to bite us down the road.

“It’s important to say that shift can be reversed on short time scales. It can be reversed by human action, like if we decide to cut the forest down, but also by climate change,” he says. “Climate change can make forests burn.”

When Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s minister of natural resources, was asked ​at a news conference in December what efforts were being made to keep the two-billion tree initiative from becoming a climate liability, he was unable to say how the risk would be managed, but said considerations were being made by departmental researchers.

O’Regan also said research indicated the initiative would result in two megatonnes of carbon being sequestered per year by 2030, and 12 megatonnes by 2050.

“It’s a long-term play. But you look at 2050, you have to start planting now,” he said.

Research into climate-focused forest management techniques has been pursued for years by the Canadian Forestry Service within NRC, predating the Liberals’ tree-planting commitment. Some techniques being considered involve changes made within the forestry industry, such as an end to burning slash and debris left behind in logged areas, or re-evaluating the optimal amount of time trees should grow before being harvested.

There’s also a move to increase the amount of Canadian timber that’s used in long-lived wood products such as homes; if it’s used in paper or other products with shorter life spans, the emissions from the harvested wood are more immediate.

Also under consideration is using wood for things such as energy generation or creating bioplastics. Wood could reduce some need for fossil fuels, eliminating the demand for additional carbon to be moved from the geosphere to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Mark Johnston, a scientist in the Saskatchewan Research Council’s environment and biotech division, says that in the pursuit of bioenergy, fast-growing trees can be planted that can be turned around in five to 15 years.

“Then you would harvest that biomass and use it in a bioenergy facility. So, in that case, you’re turning over biomass stock pretty quickly and the chances of it disappearing through forest fires is not very high,” Johnston says.

“But that doesn’t apply to all areas that would be planted. Some of this would be done for conservation purposes, or wildlife habitat, things like that. There has to be some thinking done about what is the long-term prospect of carbon in those trees and how it will be maintained. It’s a question.”

There’s also a concept called “assisted migration” in forest management, Johnston explains, which involves planting tree species in areas where they might not have grown before but are more adapted to what the future climate is projected to be.

In Saskatchewan, for example, researchers are looking at drought-resistant jack pines, but there are few fast answers available.

Researchers at NRC are taking that a step further and have been experimenting for years with genetically modified trees that are, for example, less susceptible to the increasing threat of pests. Genetic modifications could also prove useful in designing trees to absorb carbon more quickly.

Neither the NRC nor Canadian Forestry Service made anyone available for an interview.

Many details of the two-billion tree initiative have yet to be made public, such as planting areas, species and monitoring plans, but all being considered, a statement from NRC says.

“This will include both urban and rural areas across Canada, and will be delivered over 10 years, representing a 40 per cent annual increase in trees planted in Canada, increasing forest cover by an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island by year 10,” the statement says.

Finnish researchers, studying the boreal forest in their part of the world, published a paper in 2017 in the Journal of Applied Ecology that examined how optimal forest management would require tradeoffs in timber harvesting, biodiversity and climate-change objectives.

Canadian and Danish researchers have found that the amount of carbon stored in the forest soil depends on the type of tree that is planted.

Chinese researchers have found that the role of forests in sequestering carbon will be different between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Such are the variables that come with wanting to plant more trees.

●●●

There is significant focus in proposed policies to restore, or create anew, natural ecosystems that have been impacted by human activity. But there is another prong to the nature-based climate solutions, which involves proactively protecting ecosystems that could release large carbon stores.

“Job 1 is to protect the natural ecosystems we still have,” says Mark Tercek, the former CEO of the American not-for-profit organization Nature Conservancy. Tercek spoke in the Energy vs. Climate webinar series.

Different ecosystems store different amounts of carbon, Tercek explains, “but we’re protecting them for a multitude of reasons. Not only for carbon, but for biodiversity, resiliency, etc. So first, I would say, protect what we have, and then restore what’s been degraded.”

And here in Manitoba, there is no ecosystem ​more important to storing massive amounts of carbon that the Hudson Bay Lowlands that extend across northern Manitoba and into northern Ontario, as well as the accompanying peatlands that extend throughout the province. ​Wetlands and peatlands, in particular, are known to be intensive carbon sinks.

The climate liability of regular forests pale in comparison. If those ecosystems are destroyed, all of the stored carbon will be released into the atmosphere. And that goes for destruction brought about by human actions or by natural disturbances.

Manitoba is responsible for approximately 15 per cent of the country’s peat production, used principally for horticultural purposes. As an example, Sun Gro Horticulture Canada submitted an application to the Manitoba government in October asking to expand the land from which they harvest peat. The estimated emissions from the project if approved would be 637 tonnes annually.

It’s a huge issue, Mauro says, that requires further discussions on how the province is currently pursuing peat production.

“Having a critical conversation about it, I think is really important,” he says.

Beyond ​direct development of the peatlands or wetlands, Johnston says indirect interference in these ecosystems generally ends up being much more problematic. Building a road, for example, and not realizing that the wetland water source has been cut off, can allow the ecosystem to decay and release its carbon into the atmosphere.

“Wetland conservation is really, really important as a climate change mitigation strategy,” he says.

In this vein, the Canadian government has committed to protecting 25 per cent of its lands and oceans by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030. The newest of Manitoba’s conservation trusts is devoted to wetland conservation. Time will tell if these preservation initiatives prove effective.

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In the last couple of years, “nature-based climate solutions” have become a hot topic in the sustainability industry, as well as in politics. The problem is that while humans need a helping hand from nature if warming is to be held to 1.5 C or 2.0 C, it by no means offers a solution that allows for emissions to continue at our current rates.

In addition to Pedersen’s comments that “Climate is all about conservation,” Premier Brian Pallister stressed last summer watershed management is an important part of the government’s “Made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan.”

As part of his discussions with the prime minister over the carbon tax, he told the Globe and Mail in 2019 that Manitoba was already doing its part to reduce emissions by continuing development of hydroelectricity and working to protect wetlands.

“Carbon tax can be part of a climate-change mitigation strategy, but there are many, many other things that we should be doing together and we should be discussing those,” Pallister told the Globe.

The communication strategy of the Pallister government suggests politicians will try to equate conservation efforts with effective climate action. Meanwhile, emissions in the province continue to grow, according to the latest inventory report released in 2020.

“You can’t have negative emissions unless you solve your emissions-source problem,” Mauro says. “We’re not going to be able to continue to emit greenhouse gases and make up for it by eco-based system solutions. The idea that we’re just going to forest our way out of this problem is absolutely naive.”

Tercek echoed Mauro’s calls not to slow other measures designed to lower emissions.

“In the short run, (nature-based solutions) can lead to some very good climate progress. In the long-run though, it’s true, we need to remember what we concluded in Paris, we need to be at net-zero emissions in 2050. That will mostly be by reducing emissions,” he says.

“There will be some need for offsets because some emissions won’t go away yet. Maybe nature can play a role there, I hope so. We’ll also need other innovations.”

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press