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Canada’s forests actually emit more carbon than they absorb — despite what you’ve heard on Facebook

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You might have heard that Canada’s forests are an immense carbon sink, sucking up all sorts of CO2 — more than we produce — so we don’t have to worry about our greenhouse gas emissions.

This claim has been circulated on social media and repeated by pundits and politicians.

This would be convenient for our country, if it were real. Hitting our emissions-reduction targets would be a breeze. But, like most things that sound too good to be true, this one is false.

That’s because trees don’t just absorb carbon when they grow, they emit it when they die and decompose, or burn.

When you add up both the absorption and emission, Canada’s forests haven’t been a net carbon sink since 2001. Due largely to forest fires and insect infestations, the trees have actually added to our country’s greenhouse gas emissions for each of the past 15 years on record.

Not surprisingly, then, Canada has historically excluded its forests when accounting for its total greenhouse emissions to the rest of the world. We had that option, under international agreements, and it was in our interest to leave the trees out of the total tabulation, since they would have boosted our overall emissions.

But, just in the past couple of years, we have taken a different approach. We are now making the case to the United Nations that things like forest fires and pine beetle infestations shouldn’t count against us, and that only human-related changes to our forests should be included when doing the calculations that matter to our emission-reduction targets.

By that accounting method, Canada’s forestry activities would indeed count as a net carbon sink each year. But even then, they wouldn’t cancel out our emissions from other sources. Not even close.

To understand why, we have to do a wee bit of math.

‘More of a source than a sink’

First, the baseline. Our annual emissions.

Canada emits roughly 700 megatonnes of CO2 each year.

This does not include any impacts from forests or other parts of our landscape, such as wetlands and farmland. Canada has historically excluded land-use-related emissions and absorptions in its official accounting, and with good reason, if the goal is to reduce emissions on paper.

A wildfire burns on a logging road approximately 20 kilometres southwest of Fort St. James, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

That’s because our trees, in particular, have actually hurt our bottom line.

For the past 15 years, they’ve been “more of a source than a sink,” said Dominique Blain, a director in the science and technology branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Canada’s managed forests were a net contributor of roughly 78 megatonnes of emissions in 2016, the most recent year on record.

Canada’s ‘managed forest’ includes all forests under direct human influence, covering about 226 million hectares in total, or 65% of Canada’s total forest area. (Natural Resources Canada)

This includes all areas that are managed for harvesting, subject to fire or insect management, or protected as part of a park or other designation. It covers some 226 million hectares and accounts for 65 per cent of Canada’s total forest area.

In 2015, largely due to raging wildfires, these forests kicked a whopping 237 more megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they absorbed.

But when you exclude natural disturbances like fires and insect infestations and look only at the areas directly impacted by human forestry activity, the picture changes.

It’s these areas where forests act as a net carbon sink, year after year.

The “sink” effect is largely the result of new trees being planted and growing, after mature ones are cut down.

The harvested lumber, meanwhile, releases its carbon to the atmosphere more slowly. The eventual decomposition of lumber products is actually included as part of our greenhouse-gas accounting, Blain said, with scientists estimating the related carbon emissions over a period of decades.

On average, areas subject to forestry activity have been a net sink of roughly 26 megatonnes annually since 2001.

Now, remember, our annual emissions total around 700 megatonnes.

So, even with this favourable accounting, our forestry practices would only negate roughly three to four per cent of our greenhouse-gas output each year.

That’s a far cry from the carbon-neutral — or even carbon-negative — claims that have been made about Canada and its forests.

Still, it’s not negligible. And there is a case to be made for using forests — and other biomass — as a part of our climate-change strategy.

‘Anthropogenic’ activity

Mark Cameron is a former policy adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper and now runs Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a non-partisan group that promotes “market-based policies that generate growth while conserving our environment.”

He says effective management of trees and other biomass still has some value in fighting climate change — even if it’s not the “get out of jail free card” or “magic bullet” that some people make it out to be.

“I hear this frequently from people who don’t want to take additional climate action, arguing that Canada really doesn’t have to because we have such great forests,” Cameron said.

“Canada should do as much as we can to sequester carbon naturally. We should take advantage of our forests, our wetlands … but it doesn’t mean that, because we have a lot of forest, we don’t have to worry about carbon emissions, which is often the line that people use.”

When you factor in other types of biomass with forestry activity — wetlands, farmland and the like — the potential for carbon sequestration grows further.

Together, these carbon sinks totalled 28 megatonnes in 2016 and would decrease our total greenhouse gas emissions for the year by four per cent, according to Canada’s latest inventory report.

Depending on the practices in any given year, these land-use activities have the potential to be even larger sinks. Applied in 1990, for instance, they decrease Canada’s greenhouse-gas output that year by 11 per cent.

How these sinks are measured and accounted for, however, is a matter of ongoing debate — and revision.

International credit, ‘even if emissions don’t change’

In its 2017 revised submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the federal government indicated how it plans to re-evaluate its accounting of biomass.

“Canada is examining its approach to accounting in the land use, land-use change and forestry sector,” the submission reads.

As part of this process, Canada will “exclude the impacts of natural disturbances and focus on anthropogenic emissions and removals.”

In other words: Don’t count our wildfires or the devastation from our pine beetles, but do count our forestry and farming practices.

This aerial photograph shows a forest infested by the mountain pine beetle in Alberta. (Government of Alberta)

This approach, Cameron says, would go a long way toward helping Canada meet its emission-reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

“We are currently projected to fall 232 megatonnes short in 2030,” he wrote last year. “By switching to one of the alternative accounting methodologies for emissions from land use, forestry and forest products allowed under the framework, Canada could narrow the gap — perhaps by as much as 63 or 126 megatonnes — even if our actual emissions don’t change.”

The bottom line is that our trees — along with our other, plentiful sources of biomass — could be part of the solution in meeting our international agreements on climate change, but that’s more a question of accounting than of actual emissions.

As for the claims that Canada’s natural landscape makes us carbon neutral — or even carbon negative — already?

“I don’t think that they they would stand scientific scrutiny,” said Blain.

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Virtual farmer’s market comes to Ottawa

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Ottawa first-ever virtual farmer’s market has begun delivering food from local farms straight to people’s homes.

Farm to Hand is making it easier for people who cannot access their local farmer’s markets to find local, fresh organic food by bringing ordered food right to their doors. 

“The difference between us and the farmers market is really just the convenience and the on-demandness,” Sean Mallia, the co-founder of the business, told CBC Radio’s In Town and Out.

“[Often times a] person wants to make the purchase but they don’t have the time on Saturdays to go to the farmers market. Everyone wants to eat local … so when it’s easy for them to do it, it just happens.” In Town and Out No time to drive to the farmer’s market but really want to eat local?

Connecting farmers with people 

The online platform allows farmers to list all their own products, and buyers can have the goods delivered. 

“What we really are trying to do is build that connection between farmer and consumer,” Mallia said. “When people fill up a cart … they’re not just filling a cart full of food, they’re filling a cart full of farmers and farms and their stories.”

Mallia said the aim is to connect people to the “vibrant food ecosystem” around them, and to local support farmers.

The virtual market is currently limited to the Ottawa area as a pilot project, but Mallia, 21, said the company is looking to expand.

“[We chose Ottawa because] Ottawa really cares. Ottawa really thinks about local [food] and thinks about sustainability,” he said. “It just made sense to come out of Ottawa.”

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Denley: Stonebridge and Mattamy show compromise is possible over development in Ottawa

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In Ottawa, development proposals too often end up in acrimony and trips to the provincial planning tribunal. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Mattamy Homes and residents of the south Nepean suburb of Stonebridge work together to resolve a dispute in a way that’s likely to lead to a victory for both sides.

A little over a year ago, Mattamy created an uproar in the golf course community when it announced a plan to build 158 new homes on golf course lands and alter the Stonebridge course to make it shorter and less attractive to golfers. To residents, it looked like the first step in a plan to turn most, or all, of the course into housing.

It’s easy to see why residents were upset. When people pay a premium for a lot backing onto a golf course, there is certainly an implication that the lot will continue to back onto a golf course, but without a legally binding guarantee, it’s no sure thing.

Mattamy’s situation was understandable, too. This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive, doubly so when the golf course is owned by a development company.

This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive.

In the face of the local opposition, Mattamy withdrew its development application. When things cooled down, the company, the neighbours and the city started to work together on finding a solution that would satisfy everyone.

With the city-sponsored help of veteran planning consultant Jack Stirling, they came up with an unusual idea that will still let Mattamy develop its desired number of homes, in exchange for a promise to operate the course for at least 10 years and redesign it so that it remains attractive to golfers.

At the end of the 10 years, Mattamy can sell the course to the community for $6 million. To raise the money, the community working group is proposing a special levy to be paid by Stonebridge homeowners starting in 2021. The amount will range from $175 a year to $475 a year, depending on property values.

If the deal is approved by a majority of homeowners, Mattamy gets its development and a way out of the money-losing golf business. Homeowners get certainty about no future development. They can choose to keep the course going or retain the 198 acres as green space. It’s not a cheap solution, but it keeps their community as it is and preserves property values.

If a majority of homeowners backs the deal, both the levy and redevelopment will still need to be approved by the city, something scheduled for late this fall.

Stonebridge Community Association president Jay McLean was part of the working group that prepared the proposal and he’s pleased with the outcome. The community’s number one goal was preserving green space, and the deal will accomplish that, he says. Mattamy division president Kevin O’Shea says the deal “gives the community the certainty they are looking for.”

As useful as this deal could be for Stonebridge residents, it doesn’t provide a template to resolve a somewhat similar dispute in Kanata North, where the owner of the Kanata Lakes golf course wants to work with a group of local developers to replace the course with housing. In Kanata, a longstanding legal agreement saying the community has to have 40 per cent open space strengthens residents’ situation. In Stonebridge, there was no legal impediment to developing the whole course.

Golf course communities have become an anachronism in a city intent on intensifying within the urban boundary. Redeveloping those lands for housing is in sync with the city’s planning goals, but it’s not politically saleable to homeowners who thought they had a deal. If it goes ahead, the Stonebridge plan shows there is a reasonable middle ground.

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City eyes five big themes for Ottawa’s new official plan

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As Ottawa maps out its future for the next 25-plus years, city staff propose focusing on five major areas, including the places we live and the ways we move around the capital.

A staff report to the city’s planning committee lays out five themes for future public consultations, before city council finalizes the plan.

1. Growth Management: City staff say Ottawa should focus on building up, rather than out. Staff also suggest the city provide direction on the type of new housing developments, rather than focusing on the number of units in a development, to encourage a wider variety of housing types.

2. Mobility: Staff say the city should encourage active transportation — like walking and cycling — and transit use by better co-ordinating land use and transportation planning. The report also encourages designing streets to better accomodate pedestrians and cyclists, as well as improving connections to the O-Train and Transitway.

3.  Urban and Community Design: Because Ottawa is a major city and the nation’s capital, staff say the design of our city’s buildings and skyline should be a higher calibre to reflect that status. Staff also suggest the city provide high-level direction for better designed parks and public spaces.

4. Climate, Energy and Public Health: Staff say residents’ health must be foundational to the city’s new official plan, with policies contributing to creating more inclusive, walkable, and sustainable communities.

5. Economic Development: Because much of Ottawa’s employment is knowledge-based, the city suggests those employment spaces could be better integrated into neighbourhoods and along main streets and transit nodes, instead of being isolated in business parks. City staff also suggest the city encourage more business incubation and identify opportunities to increase local food production.

The city’s new official plan will map out the city’s growth to 2046. The five themes and the plan’s high-level policy direction will go before the city’s planning committee, next week.

Public consultation and fine-tuning is expected to happen before city council approves the final version of the new official plan in 2021.

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