Canada’s boreal forest is a national treasure. The boreal forest stretches 10,000 kilometres across Canada, is an important absorber of the world’s CO2 and is home to more than 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and a whopping 32,000 species of insects.
According to TreeHugger, Canada’s boreal forest is still 91% intact vs only 5% in Scandinavia. In Canada, Quebec is the biggest destroyer of boreal forests having flooded 11,000 square kilometres when it built its massive hydro power facilities. In contrast, the boreal footprint impacted by oil sands development is only 715 square kilometres or less than 7% of Quebec’s.
Here’s a seemingly simple question: Is Canada a net carbon dioxide emitter? You would think so from reading news headlines. We’ve earned the scorn of environmentalists, NGOs, and media outlets galore, labelled with such juvenile epithets as “fossil of the year” or “corrupt petro-state.”
Sadly, lost in all the hyperbole is the actual science.
But therein lies the rub; Canada is poised to immediately do more to combat climate change than almost every other country in the world. How, you ask? Well, by doing more of the same. If that sounds ludicrous, let me explain.
Most Canadians would agree that our response to climate change needs to be scientifically sound, environmentally sustainable and financially realistic, as well as global, comprehensive, and holistic. Right now, our approach is none of those things; the public discourse is driven by a myopic, ideological obsession with carbon emissions alone. What else is there, you ask?
The answer comes from the most recent report (2014) of the Global Carbon Project, which states that global human-induced CO2 emissions were 36 billion tonnes. Of that, 36 per cent stayed in the atmosphere, 27 per cent was absorbed by water, and 37 per cent was absorbed by land.
A conservative estimate of Canada’s existing carbon-absorption capacity, based on land area and the global carbon-absorption average, indicates that Canada could already be absorbing 20 to 30 per cent more CO2 than we emit. Using the same calculation, the “Big Four” polluters of China, the U.S., the European Union, and India, which together are responsible for a whopping 60 per cent of global CO2 emissions, release 10 times more CO2 than their combined land area absorbs. Canada doesn’t seem very dirty now, do we?
So when was the last time you heard a Canadian political leader, let alone the media, talk about our carbon-absorption capacity? Probably never, because we are currently ignoring that side of the equation, for a couple reasons.
First, there is insufficient political will. The government’s top experts need a mandate to pursue in-depth measurement of CO2 absorption. Recently, Canada’s federal and provincial auditors general announced a joint audit of the country’s carbon emissions. But what credible audit would examine only half a balance sheet? There’s no reason why they shouldn’t audit our absorption capacity, too. How much CO2 did our forests and land absorb? Do some trees and topographies perform better than others? In short, what is Canada’s carbon balance?
Second, it’s contrary to the interests of urbanized, overpopulated, deforested places in Europe, Asia & the Middle East to allow vast, sparsely populated, forested countries like Canada to set the climate change agenda. It doesn’t help them whatsoever for Canada to claim our fair share of the world’s carbon absorption capacity, and emerge as one of the planet’s climate leaders.
If Europe and our other traditional “Western Allies” won’t acknowledge the free ride that we are providing them by protecting our forests and thus subsidizing their emissions, it’s time for Canada to find climate allies who understand us and share our needs. It’s time for some Green Realpolitik.
Canada must successfully lobby for a world market on carbon-offset credits, where CO2 absorption is part of the equation. The potential impact is huge. Based on the aforementioned estimates of our absorption capacity, and a conservative CO2 price of $40/tonne, Canada stands to gain $10 billion per year. Think about it; we might currently be giving away $10 billion to the rest of the world, including the Big Four polluters, every year, for free.
$10 billion dollars in our coffers could go a long way toward balancing the budget, investing in sustainable energy, providing social programs, incentivizing innovation, renewing infrastructure, and generally improving Canada’s fortunes.
Taxing Canadians to try to make planet Earth greener is futile policy based on a half-blind approach that only considers emissions from our resources, not absorption from our land and forests. And for what do we sell out our future? To let the Big Four polluters off the hook? To be popular with delegates in Copenhagen or Paris?
By getting the credit we deserve, and ensuring that the planet’s real polluters pay their fair share, we win. So, the question is, why do we let our leaders set Canada up to fail?
With a simple mandate from government to factor in the entire carbon cycle, our best scientific minds can get to work assembling the evidence to create an appropriate, progressive climate policy for Canada.
F. Larry Martin, Special to Financial Post | March 2, 2016 4:40 PM ET
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