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From extractive to regenerative: experts highlight benefits of nature-based climate solutions

Panellists across the country shared success stories during The Narwhal’s online event on the role of Canada’s natural landscapes in the fight against climate change

Canada’s forests, wetlands, grasslands and farmlands stole the show during a live panel discussion hosted online by The Narwhal on Tuesday. 

“The natural landscape contains a vast amount of carbon and by cutting down trees and digging up wetlands, we’re releasing that carbon,” The Narwhal’s editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist said during her opening remarks. 

The event, which drew more than 1,000 live attendees, offered a look behind the scenes of The Narwhal’s Carbon Cache series on the role of nature-based solutions in addressing the climate crisis — an approach the Canadian government committed $3.9 billion toward in the fall 2020 economic statement

A poll during the event found a quarter of attendees were just learning about nature-based climate solutions for the first time while 50 per cent knew a little, but were eager to learn more.

Research shows one-third of the carbon reductions needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord can be achieved by protecting, managing and restoring natural landscapes.

“That’s the equivalent of stopping burning oil globally. It’s a very big opportunity,” panellist Hadley Archer, executive director of Nature United, said in the webinar.

While Canada is home to a quarter of the world’s intact forests, Archer noted the potential for nature-based solutions to reach far beyond protecting and restoring forests. 

Archer shared some preliminary observations from a forthcoming Nature United study that evaluates the carbon sequestration potential of 24 natural climate solutions and land management approaches.

“There are many solutions that are near-term, cost-effective and feasible, and we can get on with right away,” he said. Many of these solutions come with benefits beyond climate mitigation such as providing clean air and water, and promoting local sustainable economic development, he added.

Archer also pointed out that the leadership of Indigenous governments — like that of fellow panellist Cree Nation Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull —is essential to implementing these solutions. 

Gull shared that over the past decade, the Cree Nation has worked with Quebec to establish protected areas roughly the size of Iceland, demonstrating the success of Indigenous-led approaches to conservation.

“As much as we need those who are coming with scientific information and Western knowledge, we need to hear the voices of the people that are living in the regions impacted by climate change,” Gull said. 

The relationship between people and the land is also crucial to the management of the Wabanaki Acadian Forest in Eastern Canada, shared panellist Daimen Hardie, executive director of Community Forests International. His organization works to mobilize the approximately 80,000 families whose woodlots account for half of the forest. 

“If we can shift from the clearcutting practice, which is business as usual, to more of a restoration practice … then that’s what’s going to make a globally significant impact,” he said. 

Panellist Bryan Gilvesy, rancher and chief executive officer of Alternative Land Use Services, similarly touted working with farmers and ranchers to encourage the use of farmland for carbon storage as well as food production.

To date ALUS has worked with more than 1,000 farmers in six provinces to convert  uneconomic pieces of farmland to grasslands, wetlands and forests.

“We’ve got to make sure we focus through on the people that are actually going to put their hands in the dirt and make these projects happen,” he said. 

Many ranchers see themselves as ecosystem managers, added The Narwhal’s reporter Stephanie Wood. Between 75 and 90 per cent of Canada’s native grasslands have been eradicated due to development.

Bringing new people, such as farmers and ranchers, into conservation is what Gilvesy says excites him about nature-based solutions.

Panellists also discussed how carbon offsets — which can incentivize landowners to protect carbon-rich landscapes — fit into the conversation about nature-based solutions.  

“Carbon offsets are just one tool to help with that transition, to help people continue to earn a living from the land while they’re shifting from something that’s maybe more extractive to something that’s more regenerative,” Hardie said.”We gotta keep the bigger picture in mind.” 

At a time when climate action requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, the panellists agreed it is time to stop pitting approaches like tree planting and forest conservation against each other and instead put all solutions into action. 

“We are at a point in time where our actions will make it or break it,” Gull said.

“What weve seen recently is that the government can respond to an emergency and the climate crisis is an emergency,” Hardie said. “And in the first few months of the pandemic, the federal government spent over $70 billion on wage supports, which was so great and so necessary. And that was actually more than the federal government had committed to climate action over the next decade.” 

Hardie said the government’s investment in nature-based solutions is a good start but called for more ambition, quoting Bill McKibben. “The climate crisis is time-bound and winning slowly is actually losing.”

By the end of the event, many viewers indicated they’d found hope in the discussion.

“Thank you so much to The Narwhal and the panellists for this robust discussion and informative webinar,” Ryan Elizabeth Cope said. “And, of course, thank you to the journalists finding and reporting on these important stories. Bravo!”

“Thank you for an excellent presentation,” said Narwhal member Danny Kells. “Hope inspires and that’s what I hear today.”

A full recap of the event can be found on this Twitter thread.

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