Canada’s Natural Carbon Sinks: A Climate Strategy

May 3, 2023

Canada’s natural carbon sinks, including forests, wetlands, grasslands, and croplands, could play a small but effective role in the country’s overall strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A national report, featuring contributions from two University of Alberta experts, examines the potential of nature-based climate solutions (NBCSs) in the Canadian context.

The report, sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada, was prompted by the federal government’s request to explore the potential of enhancing carbon storage and reducing emissions through NBCSs. This information can inform Canada’s commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to at least 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching a net-zero economy by 2050.

The Council of Canadian Academies assessed the benefits, limitations, and costs of NBCSs in forests, freshwater systems, agricultural land, grasslands, and coastal zones. The panel of 15 Canadian and international experts from various fields, including climatology, ecology, agronomy, economics, and Indigenous knowledge, analyzed the wide scope of options available.

According to environmental economist Vic Adamowicz and wetlands scientist David Olefeldt, the report’s key conclusions show that NBCSs can have additional benefits. These include better flood control, improved air and water quality, increased biodiversity and property values, and reduced soil erosion and urban heat island effects. The policy frameworks should consider the value of NBCSs beyond their costs and carbon-capturing ability, making them more holistic.

However, the report also noted some limitations to NBCSs. Fully implementing these solutions could mitigate about 6% of Canada’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions but would involve complex factors that need careful consideration. The highest mitigation potential over the next 30 years lies in preserving peatlands and grasslands and managing croplands to sequester more carbon.

Challenges, such as costs, policies, technical impediments, and income loss to resource and agricultural industries when land is set aside for preservation, make some NBCSs more feasible than others. Additionally, under adverse conditions like warming temperatures or land development, Canada’s natural areas could release greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change and weakening the effectiveness of NBCSs.

Despite these challenges, the panel’s findings can help the federal government identify and weigh the most promising solutions for widespread use in Canada. Integrated approaches involving the public, Indigenous communities, and all levels of government will be essential for successfully leveraging natural systems. This process includes creating government programs, policy design, conversations with landowners, and working with Indigenous communities.

Work on carbon sequestration using natural systems is already underway through various government incentive programs and research by scientists like Edward Bork and Cameron Carlyle from the University of Alberta. Next steps include strengthening the science around measuring NBCSs and conducting more research and monitoring of conserved and restored sites to verify carbon accumulation claims.

As natural systems are not yet fully understood, policy design and evaluation will help determine the carbon benefits of investments. Building up nature-based climate solutions is doable, and Canada can start by choosing options that work well, playing a role in reaching net-zero emissions and generating co-benefits.