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Unsustainable human activity is harming our climate and natural ecosystems. Once working as natural carbon sinks, natural ecosystems are eroding due to land use. The carbon released from this erosion is speeding up climate change and affecting other natural ecosystems.

To break this cycle, the Canadian government has developed a funding strategy by adopting natural climate solutions (NCS) as new solution proposals. The relevance of NCS has become a hot topic in the climate policy conversation. Simply put, natural climate solutions either prevent the conversion of natural habitats or reclaims them to create more carbon sinks. NCS addresses climate and biodiversity problems, with projects using natural environments to sequester carbon. These solutions are distinct from techniques, such as tree planting, because NCS focuses on the long-term development or protection of ecosystems. 

The Application of Natural Climate Solutions in Canada

The Canadian government has made significant funding commitments toward NCS adoption across the country by developing the Nature Smart Climate Solutions Fund, a fund of $4.7 billion contributed to implementing these strategies over the next ten years. This fund is a part of Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, and NCS serves as a tool for the Canadian government to address both land use and the carbon emissions that occur from them. The government seems to be confident about the potential of natural solutions, with NCS being able to contribute to nearly 11% of its 2030 targets.

Given the novelty of this approach, the federal government has commissioned studies from organizations like the Council of Canadian Academics (CCA) to quantify and assess the exact mitigation potential of NCSs, and how they can be best applied across Canada to be able to meet the country’s climate targets. The CCA report states that NCS projects involve assessing different types of natural environments, such as “wetlands, peatlands and grasslands,” for their potential to store greenhouse gasses. Since these projects often require the restoration or creation of natural ecosystems like forests or swamps, they operate on longer timelines. 

NCS projects also require constant maintenance and monitoring to ensure carbon is captured and not released. Experts report that natural climate solutions carry the strong potential to mitigate the effects of land-use change from intensive extraction activity. This makes it especially useful for sectors like oil & gas, which require intensive land use as part of the extractive process. NCS can be applied to restore habitats and ecosystems or promote more sustainable land use in the exploration and post-exploration stages. 

While these solutions only appear to be a minor piece of the carbon emissions mitigation pie, it is crucial to emphasize that natural climate solutions have climate and social benefits outside the 2030 goals. Oil and gas-related land use typically occur in more remote rural areas, such as those near Fort Nelson in Northeastern B.C.  and the oil sands in Northern Alberta. This severely impacts those who live in these remote communities, particularly Indigenous Peoples. In the land development process, these small-community stakeholders find themselves increasingly marginalized. Historically, the development of oil and gas projects has been conducted without the consent of Indigenous groups. Being unable to voice their concerns for land and community health once it is leased out for resource extraction activity has critically impacted on both health and the environment.

Natural Climate Solutions as a Reconciliation Tool

The health of their natural environment strongly correlates with community health for Indigenous groups and those who live in remote communities. The tension of intensive impact Canadian oil industry has made on Indigenous lands resulted in a filed case against the project approvals processes via Yahey v. British Columbia. Instituted by the Blueberry River First Nation (BRFN), community members for decades had been unable to exercise their treaty rights on their lands once they were leased out for resource extraction. In 2015, they accused the B.C. government of infringing on their right under Treaty 8. In 2021, the case went to the Supreme Court of B.C. where the impact of industrial land use on BRFN was characterized as “death by 1,000 cuts” by Justice Burke, the B.C. Supreme Court Justice who ruled in favour of BRFN. The B.C. government decided not to appeal the case. 

Yahey represents a victory for BRFN and has brought about major changes in how the B.C. government approaches industrial projects. It has also led to greater involvement of First Nations and Indigenous communities in the project approvals process and prompted more cooperation amongst different ministries in the B.C. government. The case forces the consideration of cumulative effects and gives local communities a voice in governing the natural resource extraction process in British Columbia. This case characterizes the consistent impact of industry on Indigenous populations. The industry’s impact on the land has created the need for natural environments and ecosystems to restore; this can serve as an opportunity for wider implementation of NCS to address the historical impacts of industry and colonization. 

The increased involvement of Indigenous Peoples has helped to exhibit the novelty of natural climate solutions on full display by elevating actors who care about natural ecosystems and land health. This allows the federal government to address carbon emissions on lands under its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, First Nations, provincial and municipal governments can use NCS to rehabilitate or protect lands that oil and gas extraction has damaged. 

Nature Climate Solutions and 2030

Natural climate solutions are growing in appeal and relevance for Canada. At the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal, the Canadian government committed to protecting 30% of land, coastal, and marine areas by 2030. The government has also mobilized $4.7 billion towards achieving this goal.

If effectively applied, NCS will contribute to Canada’s 2030 climate goals while addressing issues of biodiversity and habitat loss in a much more direct way than other mitigation strategies. These actions are extremely relevant and critical to take now. They offer Canada an opportunity to meet targets set for 2030. Also, the benefits of natural climate solutions spread beyond carbon sinkage as they can help create a far healthier environment while forcing more sustainable industry practices. 

As of 2023, we only have seven years to meet this decade’s climate goals. Provinces must exercise greater authority to implement nature-based solutions in their jurisdictions through greater self-determination for Indigenous Peoples. While the federal government has limited jurisdiction here, it can take several measures to encourage greater NCS uptake.

First, the government could create a set of success standards for oil industry members through international development norms and gold standard certifications. Second, the government could involve more actors and improve its communication strategy around who can access federal funding. 

Last but not least, the government could create an aligned definition for what qualifies as a natural climate solution to help streamline stakeholder efforts. NCSs are relatively new when it comes to climate mitigation strategies. That newness could contribute to different definitions when it constitutes an NCS. Various stakeholders may already be doing work that can be considered NCS, such as the B.C. government adopting modernized land use planning. Streamlining will make it easier for the federal government to encourage the uptake of these programs.

Collective action is our way out of the climate crisis. Including different stakeholders in the decision-making process allows them to adopt more NCS projects at a wider level and helps make goals more achievable. Applying these lessons from international forums to domestic settings, especially for highly federal systems, is key to ensuring we meet our climate goals and secure our existence as a species.

Edited by Osama Alshantti & Bethlehem Samson