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Reactions to Canada's Climate Change Framework: Forestry, agriculture and waste

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By Amin Asadollahi, December 14, 2016

In December 2016, Canada's First Ministers released their Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. In this series of blog posts we break down the Framework for you, explaining what is proposed, what the strenghts are, and what challenges may lie ahead.

In this blog post, we focus on forestry, agriculture and waste.

What is the issue?

In 2014, about one fifth of Canada’s emissions came from changes to land use and forestry, the agriculture sector, and municipal waste.

Forests, croplands, grasslands, and wetlands are known as natural carbon sinks, which means that they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are home to many species and play a critical role in maintaining balance in our ecosystem. The destruction of these ecosystems, including by human activity, reduce the planet’s natural ability to reduce emissions and can result in the carbon stored to be rereleased back into the atmosphere.

For example, in 2014, Canada’s forests removed about 64 megatonne (Mt) of greenhouse gases (GHGs), while the destruction of grasslands and wetlands, as well as harvested wood products resulted in 143 Mt of emissions.

In the agricultural sector, about half of emissions comes from the digestive process of animals, in methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Both these GHGs have a very high global warming potential.

In the waste sector, which accounted for 29 Mt of Canada’s GHGs, the majority of emissions came from solid waste disposal where breakdown of landfill-produced methane emissions, also known as landfill gas.

How does the pan-Canadian framework plan to address the problem?

The framework proposes to protect and enhance carbon sinks (e.g. through conservation), increase the use of wood products in construction (e.g. through building code requirements), work to develop opportunities for renewable fuels and bioproducts, and support innovation.

What are the strengths of the proposed solutions?

Earlier this month, Canadian conservation organizations urged First Ministers to recognize “the important role of Canada’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems in reducing emissions.” The framework took a positive step forward in this regard, by noting the important role of Canada’s carbon sinks.

Conservation of our natural assets can help prevent release of the carbon stored and conserve ecosystems that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Restoration efforts (e.g., planting trees) will further these goals while creating a habitat for species to thrive, and help governments with their plans to reverse the decline of at-risk species. Finally, these efforts can provide natural solutions to climate adaptation, such as restoring wetlands to reduce the impact floods.

The waste sector provides untapped opportunities. By expanding landfill gas use, this cleaner burning source of energy which was once wasted could be put to use and create economic opportunities. From an environmental perspective, methane from landfills are of particular concern, and, by turning it into an energy source, short-term and quick climate benefits could be realized.

The agriculture sector could also benefit from climate measures but additional research is needed. Recognizing the need for innovation will make the sector more resilient and can result in economic opportunities.

What are some key elements to consider in implementing a robust policy?

One challenge will be to ensure that carbon sinks credits attributed to Canada’s inventory are real and additional. A robust, objective and transparent accounting system will be necessary.

Sound climate policy could support both emission reduction and biodiversity objectives. When restoring and protecting ecosystems, governments can begin by prioritizing natural habitats to meet a number of objectives. For example, governments could protect and restore critical habitat for species at risk in order to meet emission reduction and conservation objectives. To this end, the Canadian federal government should be mindful of its fast approaching international commitment, under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, of protecting at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water by 2020, among other areas. It will be important for governments to work closely with Aboriginal communities on conservation efforts.

When it comes to bioenergy policies, governments should ensure that they don’t inadvertently stimulate deforestation and increase the use of fertilizers for feedstock production. The same would be true with increased use of wood products in buildings. If anything, governments should maximize conservation efforts and further improve sustainable forestry practices. Opportunities in landfill gas, on the other hand, should be maximized through requirements that reduce methane emissions to the extent possible.

Finally, while noting the need for innovation, governments could also create conditions in order for the agriculture sector to be both part of the climate solution and capitalize on market opportunities. For example, improved soil management can result in emission reductions and governments can create opportunities for the sector to create carbon offsets. These could provide the agriculture sector with new revenue opportunities under carbon pricing programs.