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Enhancing Canada's Climate Change Ambitions with Natural Climate Solutions


Abstract and Figures

This report provides 5 recommendations for Canada to enhance its climate change ambitions in the short-term (i.e. to 2030) using Natural Climate Solutions. The most effective short term action is to protect intact carbon-dense/high biodiversity ecosystems, including primary forests, grasslands, eelgrass beds and saltmarshes. Canada is one of the few countries in the world that still has enough intact ecosystems to achieve this.
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Biological Inc.
Enhancing Canada’s Climate Change Ambitions
with Natural Climate Solutions
By Risa B. Smith, Ph.D.
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About the Author
Dr. Risa Smith is currently the Chair of World
Commission on Protected Areas Climate
Change Specialist Group. Over the past 25
years her professional interests have focussed on
the interface between science and policy. She has
led the development of Canadas positions at the
United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity
(CBD), produced several state of environment
style reports, including Canadian Biodiversity:
Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, served as
Canadian representative and chair of Conservation
of Arctic Flora and Fauna, and participated in
many task forces and expert groups related to
sustainable development, biodiversity and climate
change. Her most recent publications focus on
enhancing Canadas climate change ambition and
the importance of tackling the biodiversity loss and
climate change crises together.
Report available here or here
This report was made possible with
funding from the:
Assistance was provided by:
Suggested Citation: Risa B. Smith (2020)
Enhancing Canadas Climate Change Ambitions
with Natural Climate Solutions. Vedalia Biological
Inc. Galiano, Canada.
ISBN 978-1-7773950-0-1
The author would also like to acknowledge the
thoughtful review comments of many government,
academic and non-government colleagues, which
served to make the document stronger and the
analysis better, the support of members of the
Protected Areas Climate Change Specialist Group
of IUCN/WCPA, and particularly the invaluable
discussions with Dr. Tom Mommsen.
Dr. Risa B. Smith
Chair Protected Areas Climate Change Specialist Group (IUCN/WCPA)
& Vedalia Biological Research Inc.
Executive Summary ................................................................................................................................................ 4
Recommendations at a Glance .............................................................................................................................. 7
Context .................................................................................................................................................................... 9
Temporal Considerations ...................................................................................................................................... 10
Limitations of these Recommendations ............................................................................................................... 10
Methodology ........................................................................................................................................................... 11
Principles for the Canadian Context .................................................................................................................... 12
Analysis ................................................................................................................................................................... 14
Recommendation 1: Targeted Protection ........................................................................................................ 14
Forests ............................................................................................................................................................. 16
Grasslands ....................................................................................................................................................... 19
Peatlands ......................................................................................................................................................... 19
Permafrost ....................................................................................................................................................... 20
Blue Carbon .................................................................................................................................................... 20
Recommendation 2: Proforestation with Protection ...................................................................................... 23
Recommendation 3: Lengthened Harvest Rotation ........................................................................................ 26
Recommendation 4: Restoration Examples ..................................................................................................... 29
Planting 2 Billion Trees ................................................................................................................................... 30
Coastal Vegetated Systems (Blue Carbon) ......................................................................................................... 31
Recommendation 5: Resources .......................................................................................................................... 32
ANNEX I: e numbers and methods ................................................................................................................. 34
ANNEX II: Definitions .......................................................................................................................................... 37
References ............................................................................................................................................................... 38
Enhancing Canadas Climate Change Ambitions with
Natural Climate Solutions
1 For the boreal forest this includes only boreal forest over 200 years
2 These old-growth forests fall within the FAO (2015) denition of primary forest
is report investigates the most effective ways
for Canada to leverage Natural Climate Solutions
(NCS) to increase its
climate change ambition.
Five recommendations
plus associated data and
methodologies are presented.
By far the most effective
approach for obtaining short
term results (i.e. by 2030) is
to protect the most carbon-
ecosystems. is is
recommendation 1 – targeted
protection - which will result
in immediate reductions in
greenhouse gas emissions
(GHG) and large co-benefits
for biodiversity and attaining
Canadas goal of protecting
25% of its lands and waters
by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
Protecting the remaining
old-growth forests on high
productivity sites, especially
in British Columbia; old-growth boreal forest
with long intervals between natural disturbances1;
remnants of old-growth temperate forests,
particularly in Ontario and Quebec2; and native
prairie grasslands, would result in immediate
emissions reductions of about 5 Mt CO2 per year,
by maintaining the ability of those ecosystems that
are under imminent threat to sequester carbon.
In the short-term emissions reductions of 1.8 to
11 billion tonnes (Gt) CO2e would be achieved
from preventing the release of stored carbon. Over
the longer term (i.e. post 2050) protection of these
ecosystems would result in over 500 Mt CO2
which would continue to be sequestered from the
atmosphere and avoided emissions from the release
of stored carbon of up to 35 to 186 Gt CO2e. is
same policy would have a co-benefit of increasing
total terrestrial conserved and protected areas by
approximately 1.3 million km2.
Protecting the remaining carbon-dense coastal
ecosystems, such as saltmarshes and eelgrass beds,
would result in direct emissions reductions of up
5.1 Mt CO2 per year. Further emissions reductions
of 33 to 3,750 Mt of CO2e would be achieved
by keeping the stored carbon that is currently
2 billion trees
(delayed for decades)
Annual Emissions Reductions from Maintaining Carbon Sinks (Mt CO2)
with protection
(delayed for decades)
harvest rotation
(immediate & short lived)
FIGURE 1: Protection of carbon-rich/high biodiversity areas, that are designated for
logging or development, results in the greatest immediate reduction in annual greenhouse
gas emissions. Note that for boreal forests this includes only forests older than 200 years. For
all forests, it includes only the total area that is harvested annually, as that area is immediately
threatened. This includes protection of blue carbon (eelgrass and saltmarshes). The impacts of
increasing the area of older forests by letting younger forests grow old (i.e. proforestation) and
planting 2 billion trees are also signicant, but they are time-delayed with emissions reductions
not being realized for decades or more. Lengthening the harvest period could have immediate
benets for CO2 sequestration, but eventual harvest of these forests will negate most of the
long-term benets for CO2 sequestration and carbon storage. Protection has the advantage of
large co-benets for biodiversity and contributing to Canada’s goal of protecting 25% of its lands
and waters by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
Enhancing Canadas Climate Change Ambitions with
Natural Climate Solutions
unprotected, intact. In addition, protecting the
remaining saltmarshes and eelgrass beds would
add approximately 2,400 km2 to marine conserved
and protected areas.
Recommendation 2 identifies
additional gains, also with
dual benefits for biodiversity
and climate change, that
can be attained by growing
30% of managed forests
currently over 60 years old
to ecological maturity and
protecting them. is is
referred to as ‘proforestation
with protection’. ese forests
could replace, over time, up
to half of the ancient forests
(i.e. the high carbon density/
high biodiversity forests)
that Canada has lost since
pre-European contact. is
recommendation would result
in reduced annual emissions
of 1.5 Mt CO2, starting now,
and emission reductions
would increase over time,
as the 1.5 Mt CO2 only
includes the portion of forest that is in imminent
danger of harvest (i.e. annual harvest). In addition,
immediate emissions reductions of 126 Mt CO2e
would be realized by retaining the stored carbon in
these forests. is too would increase over time as
these forests age and increase their carbon stores.
Ultimately, over many decades, these forests would
sequester more than 470 Mt CO2 per year. is
recommendation would also increase protected
areas by approximately 1.4 million km2.
Recommendation 3 - increasing the length of
time between harvests - as suggested by Canadian
Council of Forest Ministers (2018) - would have
short term benefits to help Canada enhance its
climate change ambitions to 2030. However,
as these forests would eventually be logged the
benefits would be ephemeral. For example,
increasing the period between harvests on 25% of
the area currently harvested annually would result
in emission reductions of about 1.2 Mt CO2 per
year until these forests are harvested. Depending
on the how long the rotation period is extended,
this could potentially allow secondary forests to
develop some of the old-growth characteristics
important for many species at risk.
To put this in context, Canada released
729 Mt CO2e in 2018 and is currently not on
track to reduce its emissions to 511 Mt CO2e per
year by 2030, as promised in its current Nationally
Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris
Climate Agreement. Natural Climate Solutions
(NCS) can increase climate change ambitions,
while addressing the loss of biodiversity, with
the same investment. e resilient, diverse
ecosystems resulting from implementation of these
recommendations are Canadas best hedge against
the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss
and maintenance of the many ecosystem services
that natural ecosystems provide.
Long-term GHG Emissions Reductions
by Maintaining Carbon Stores (Mt CO2e)
FIGURE 2: Emission reductions are also achieved by avoiding releases of stored carbon.
Estimates of stored carbon vary, depending on a variety of factors including assumptions of the
researcher, whether soil carbon as well as biomass is included, the ecosystem type, geography
and climate. This graph shows the GHG emission savings resulting from full implementation of
the recommendations, and including savings from protection of targeted ecosystems that are
at risk from human activities, but the risk may or may not be imminent. For targeted protection,
boreal forests over 200 years are reected in the calculations.
with protection
2 billion trees
Mt CO2 (low estimate) Mt CO2 e (high estimate)
Canadas most recent GHG inventory claims
that in 2018, the latest year for which data are
available, the Land Use, Land Use Change and
Forestry (LULUCF) sector was responsible for a
net removal of 13 Mt CO2 from the atmosphere,
and projects that the
contribution of LULUCF
will decrease to 10 Mt CO2e
in 2030 (Table 5.6 ECCC
2020). Recommendations
1, 2 and 3 provide options
that could more than double
the importance of LULUCF
by 2030. However, it would
require Canada to expand
what it reports on to include
ecosystems other than
forests, such as grasslands,
peatlands and coastal
ecosystems, in its inventory.
Recommendation 4
discusses two options for
restoration. Restoration
is not discussed in detail
because the focus of this
investigation was on short-
term results. Most restoration activities, while
important, do not realize emission reductions for
decades, including planting the 2 billion trees
that the government has already committed to.
Planting 2 billion trees would sequester between
4 and 8 Mt CO2 per year, when they are mature.
Depending on what is planted, where it is planted,
and if the trees are stewarded to mitigate climate
change and reduce biodiversity loss over the long-
term, this initiative could have multiple benefits
for urban air quality, biodiversity and community
well-being decades down the road. e United
Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 the “UN
Decade on Ecosystem Restoration”. is provides
an opportunity for all countries, including
Canada, to increase their restoration ambitions
with the aim of long term gains for biodiversity,
climate change and human well-being.
Recommendation 4 also notes the investments
in coastal restoration already underway and the
benefits for carbon dynamics, which currently go
Recommendation 5 highlights the need to invest
in Natural Climate Solutions if the benefits for
biodiversity and climate change are to be realized.
Additions to Protected
and Conserved Areas X 1,000 km2
FIGURE 3: Additions to Protected and Conserved Areas. These recommendations would
result in signicant increases to Canada’s protected and conserved areas of 1.3 million km2
terrestrial and 2,400 km2 marine areas for recommendation 1, targeted protection, and
1.4 million km2 for recommendation 2, protection of 30% of forests over 60 years. These
are not additive because of partial overlap between areas that would be protected in these
two recommendations.
Proforestation with protection Targeted Protection
Protect threatened, intact, carbon-dense/high-
biodiversity ecosystems: the most effective
Natural Climate Solution to 2030.
Reduces CO2 emissions by about 10 Mt CO2
per year, by maintaining carbon sinks, for
ecosystems under imminent threat. By 2030 this
would increase to over 175 Mt CO2 per year.
Avoids emissions of 586 Mt CO2e per year by
maintaining carbon stores, for ecosystems under
imminent threat. By 2030 this could avoid
emissions of 1.8 to 11 billion tonnes (Gt) of
CO2e that would not be released from Canadas
vast carbon stores; beyond 2050 it avoids
emissions of 35 to 186 Gt CO2e.
Increases protected and conserved areas by
1.3 million km2 (terrestrial) and 2,400 km2
Grow 30% of Canada’s forests over 60 years
old to their ecological potential, recreating a
more resilient forest and replacing some of the
old forests that have been lost. To make these
gains permanent these forests would have to be
Reduces emissions by 1.5 Mt CO2 per year
by maintaining carbon sinks for forests
under imminent threat. Beyond 2050 this
would increase the forest carbon sink to over
470 Mt CO2 per year.
Avoids emissions of 126 Mt CO2e per year by
maintaining carbon stores, under imminent
threat. Beyond 2050 this would avoid emissions
of 17.7 to 99 Gt CO2e.
Increases protected areas by approximately
1.4 million km2.
Lengthen the harvest rotation in managed
forests by letting forests grow until they reach
their full carbon sequestration potential.
If implemented on 25% of the harvested land
base, reduces emissions by at least 1.2 Mt CO2
per year for every year of delayed harvest.
Annual increases would depend on multiple
No long-term benefits for either protected areas
or maintaining carbon stores would be achieved,
as these forests would eventually be harvested.
Plant 2 billion trees and quantify the GHG
emission benefits of ongoing saltmarsh and
eelgrass restoration. ese are two of many
long-term commitments needed to restore lost
and degraded ecosystems that sequester CO2
from the atmosphere, are important carbon
stores and provide co-benefits for biodiversity
and other ecosystem services.
Results not measurable for decades or more.
2 billion trees would reduce emissions by
4 to 8 Mt CO2 per year by creating carbon
sinks, with benefits being realized post 2050.
Long term benefits for carbon storage and
biodiversity would be substantial, but depend on
many factors and are difficult to quantify.
Restoration of saltmarshes and eelgrass beds
will have a large impact on carbon sinks. For
example, restoration of 20% of the saltmarshes
in the Bay of Fundy, by one estimate, would
sequester an additional 3.55 Mt CO2 per year.
Commit the necessary financial investments to
ensure that NCS have significant impacts on
reducing GHG emissions and reversing the loss
of biodiversity.
Addressing the linked crises of biodiversity loss
and climate change together leverages multiple
benefits from the same investments and avoids
unintended negative consequences.
All pathways to limiting global warming to
increases of either 2°C or 1.5°C of pre-industrial
levels require the use of NCS (IPCC 2018) to
both reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
and to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. ere
is also general agreement that biodiversity loss
and climate change are twin crises, and that
enhancing the contributions of natural systems
to climate change mitigation and adaptation has
to include addressing biodiversity loss at the same
time (Rogelj et al. 2018) (UNFCCC 2020a,
Dec. 1/CP.25/para 15; Executive Secretary of
Convention on Biological Diversity 2019). is
report recommends NCS include only solutions
that both reduce GHG emissions and address
biodiversity loss. Solutions that may reduce
GHG emissions but have unintended negative
consequences for biodiversity are excluded.
ere are two equally important aspects to NCS:
i) protecting the vast carbon stores in Canadas
ecosystems from release into the atmosphere
through human activities; and ii) avoiding human
activities that reduce the ability of Canadas natural
ecosystems to remove carbon dioxide (CO2)
from the atmosphere. As Canada is responsible
for nearly one-third of global land-based carbon
storage (estimated by Shea et al. 2018), Canada
has a global responsibility to protect these carbon
stores as well as to improve the ability of its
ecosystems to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.
It is important to acknowledge that Canada has,
over the last 30 years, invested in the difficult
exercise of tracking greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions, that are a result of human activities,
from some ecosystems. For example, Canada
tracks the extent to which its managed forests
sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, and GHG
emissions released into the atmosphere from
logging. erefore, Canada is able to credibly
report, using rules established under the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC), on the extent to which
its managed forests and some other ecosystems
sequester or emit GHGs. However, increasing
ambition in Canadas Nationally Determined
Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement
requires being able to account for emissions from
human activities in natural ecosystems outside
forests, such as coastal ecosystems, peatlands and
native grasslands. It also requires being able to
differentiate the harvest of intact, primary forests
from secondary forests, particularly because the
replacement of a primary forest with a secondary
forest results in a large reduction in carbon stores
(~40%) (Kurz et al. 1998; Lewis et al. 2019).
IPCC (2019) emphasized that some NCS have
immediate impact, while other solutions take
decades or more to deliver measurable results.
Immediate impacts can be obtained from
conservation of high-carbon ecosystems (i.e.
primary forests, peatlands, wetlands, rangelands,
and blue carbon that are slated for industrial
activities). Other options are important and
require implementation within the next few years
to deliver real results for GHG emissions by 2050
or beyond. ese options include afforestation,
reforestation and reclamation of degraded
soils. As well, some approaches are temporary
and do not sequester carbon indefinitely (i.e.
afforestation, reforestation of lands that will
be harvested, increasing the period between
harvests). Conservation of some ecosystems, such
as peatlands, can continue to sequester carbon
for centuries and store it for equally long periods
(IPCC 2019).
ese recommendations are limited to how
natural ecosystems such as forests, coastal blue
carbon ecosystems, peatlands and grasslands
can be leveraged to enhance Canadas ambitions
in its NDC by 2030. Other practices, such as
improvements in agriculture, are also important
aspects of increasing Canadas ambitions. For
example, on a global scale, it is recognized
that improvements in agriculture could reduce
emissions by 22% (Tubiello et al. 2014; Griscom
et al. 2017). Canadas fourth report to the
UNFCCC (ECCC 2020) indicates that cropland
in 2017 sequestered 6.6 Mt CO2 and predicts
that this will decrease to 1.5 Mt CO2 in 2030.
An entire report could be written on scenarios
for improving the ability of agricultural soils in
Canada to sequester and store carbon. However,
this report is focussed on natural ecosystems and
gains to be made by 2030.
Grasslands near Kamloops, BC. Photo: Miroslav_1/istock
In this analysis, the baseline for emissions
reductions is measured against emissions that
would occur if planned activities take place. For
example, in the recommendations it is suggested
that the remaining old-growth forest on high
productivity sites in BC be protected. As these
forests are currently designated for harvesting,
there will be emissions reductions if they are
protected rather than harvested. All of the
emissions reductions by not logging old-growth
forests also take into consideration that the forests
proposed for protection are not subject to frequent
natural disturbance by fire.
However, the extent to which climate change
might cause feedbacks which change the patterns
of natural disturbances on Canadas ecosystems
was not estimated. Any of Canadas ecosystems
could reach tipping points that turn sinks into
sources. is in turn could alter the significance
of particular NCS pathways. ese types of
predictions are very difficult to make with
reasonable certainty. Still, it is well understood
that the best hedge against complex feedbacks to
natural systems from climate change is to manage
for the resilience provided by natural, biologically
diverse ecosystems.
ere is no comprehensive data source for carbon
sequestration and carbon storage in natural
ecosystems in Canada. Most of the information
was mined from peer reviewed research, where
the estimates of carbon dioxide sequestration
and carbon storage vary widely. e issue of data
variability was resolved by providing the ranges
and sources for each number. As well, separating
immediate threats from longer term threats is
possible for forests, where the area harvested
annually is readily available. erefore, for forests,
emissions reductions from the imminent threat of
logging are separated from longer term threats. For
other ecosystems, credible numbers on imminent
threats as compared to longer term threats are not
available. Finally, although the carbon stored in
peatlands is provided in Annex I, it is not included
in the total calculations as the greatest threat to
carbon dynamics in peatlands is methane releases
as a result of warming permafrost. e extent to
which this is happening, and the time frame on
which it will happen, is a matter of conjecture.
e detailed ranges, methodologies and sources for
all calculations are in Annex I and its endnotes.
1. While NCS can make a significant
contribution to reducing GHG emissions
both globally and in Canada, the benefits
of NCS do not decrease the imperative
for direct reduction in GHG emissions
from the energy sector (Anderson et
al. 2019; Seddon et al. 2020). In other
words NCS are an important piece of the
puzzle in reducing GHG emissions, but in
Canada, where GHG emissions from the
combustion of fossil fuels overwhelm the
national GHG inventory (ECCC 2020),
NCS do not replace the importance of
reducing emissions from fossil fuels quickly
(Baldocchi and Penuelas 2019).
2. Achieving co-benefits for climate change and
biodiversity is essential when considering
NCS. Solutions that might have a short-
term impact on GHG emissions but
unintended negative consequences on
biodiversity are not viable NCS. Solutions
that, for example, result in increased use of
wood for construction, thereby storing the
carbon in structures rather than releasing
it into the atmosphere, might have a short-
term benefit for GHG emissions, but could
have a negative consequence for biodiversity
if they result in increased harvesting of
carbon-dense primary forests (which contain
the best trees for lumber). e negative
consequences would be on the already
at-risk biodiversity that is dependent on
the now rare primary forests (e.g. Mountain
caribou, boreal birds).
3. Accounting for the risks to permanence of
NCS is paramount. Several disturbances can
affect the ability of ecosystems to continue
to sequester carbon or to maintain their
carbon stores including fires, droughts
and insect outbreaks. In addition, these
risks are exacerbated by climate change,
but difficult to quantify. Consideration of
risk to permanence has been included in
Recommendation 1, where only forests
with long intervals between fires are
recommended for protection.
4. Addressing rights and title of Indigenous
Peoples is increasingly recognized as going
hand-in-hand with effective NCS. Much
of the remaining intact landscapes and
seascapes of interest for both conservation
and climate change mitigation are within
Indigenous territories – both within Canada
and internationally (Artelle et al. 2019)
(Figure 4).
1. Reduce fossil fuel emissions
Emissions from transportation. Photo: FatCamera/istock
2. Prevent conversion of carbon sinks
and stores
Boreal forest deforestation for oil sands development.
Photo: Jiri Rezac
3. Remove CO2 from the atmosphere by
protecting carbon sinks
Boreal Forest in Quebec. Photo: Onfokus/istock
5. ere are two equally important aspects to
NCS: protecting the carbon stored over long
periods (i.e. often hundreds but sometimes
thousands of years) so that it doesnt end up
back in the atmosphere; and protecting and
increasing the amount of carbon dioxide that
an ecosystem can take out of the atmosphere
annually, to counter emissions from other
sources. Climate smart policy, including
implementation of NCS, requires both ‘catch
and store’ (Talberth 2017).
FIGURE 4: Source (Artelle et al. 2019) (Left) Total human population density across Canada, based on 2016 census. (Middle) Indigenous
communities locations represented as red dots, as described by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada’s “First Nations
Location” and “Inuit Community Location” datasets. (Right) Present and emerging Guardian programs represented as yellow dots, as
depicted in the “Indigenous Guardians Toolkit” (, the “Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program Map” canada.
ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-funding/indigenous-guardians-pilot-program/map.html , and a map of Coastal
Guardian Watchmen locations at Coastal First Nations coastal
support/. Underlying polygons in the middle and right panels denote intact ecosystems as described in the “last of the wild” dataset (Watson
et al., 2018b; dark blue), and Intact Forest Layer (Potapov et al., 2017; light blue)
People per
square kilometer
LEGEND (middle and right)
Intact ecosystems
Intact forests
Indigenous communities
Guardians programs
Protecting threatened, intact, carbon-dense/high-
biodiversity ecosystems: the most effective Natural
Climate Solution to 2030.
Western Red Cedar, Coastal BC. Photo: Timothy Epp/
Protection of carbon-dense ecosystems slated for some form of industrial activity, be it
logging old-growth forests, removing saltmarshes through dyking, building roads, hydro dams
or fossil fuel infrastructure on peatlands, or converting grasslands to agriculture, results
in emissions reductions from retaining in situ carbon. Protection also reduces emissions
by maintaining the ongoing ability of these ecosystems to remove carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere (Anderson et al. 2019; Smyth et al. 2014; Böttcher and Lindner 2010; IPCC 2019).
Protection of the most carbon-dense/high-biodiversity ecosystems, under imminent
threat, would result in removal of up to 10 Mt CO2 per year from the atmosphere on
implementation, to over 175 Mt CO2 per year by 2030. As well, emissions of 586 Mt CO2e
would be avoided by maintaining carbon stores under imminent threat. By 2030 this would
increase to 1.8 to 11 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2e and beyond 2050 it would increase to
between 35 and 186 Gt of CO2e.
In the Canadian context, this means reduced human
activity, particularly in the areas with the highest
stored carbon and the greatest potential for carbon
sequestration, the greatest potential to reverse the
loss of biodiversity and the greatest potential to
ensure resilient ecosystems. Specific actions are : i) a
moratorium on harvesting in the now rare carbon-
dense old-growth forests, on high productivity
sites, in British Columbia, old-growth boreal
forests, which are mostly in Quebec, Ontario and
Newfoundland and Labrador, and remnants of old-
growth Carolinian forests of Ontario, Quebec and
the Maritimes; ii) no further conversion of natural
grasslands to other uses, such as agriculture, mostly
in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan; iii) increased
protection of intact boreal forests with high soil
carbon densities, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and
Newfoundland and Labrador; iv) moratorium on
further destruction of remaining eelgrass meadows
and saltmarshes on all three coasts; v) moratorium
on drainage of peatlands for industrial activities.
e importance of conservation is increasingly
recognized as a key policy tool to achieve the dual
targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and
reversing biodiversity loss (Böttcher and Lindner
2010; Stinson et al. 2011). For example, the
European Union (EU) has recently decided to
strictly protect the EU’s remaining primary forests,
as well as other carbon-rich ecosystems such as
peatlands, grassland, wetlands and coastal marine
zones (European Commission 2020).
e intact temperate and boreal primary forests of
the US Pacific Northwest, Canada and Russia are
responsible for 8 to 20 % of the global terrestrial
carbon sink of roughly 0.4 billion tonnes (Gt)
of carbon dioxide sequestered per year (Biello
2008). Equally important as carbon sequestration
is carbon storage. Temperate forests store about
119 Gt of carbon, most of it above ground. Only
9.6% of primary temperate forests remain globally.
By contrast, boreal forests store about 1042 Gt
of carbon, the vast majority of it below ground.
About 42.6% of primary boreal forest remain
intact (Pan et al. 2011).
Several international organizations have mapped
the remaining intact ecosystems of Canada and the
world (e.g. Figure 5). Russia, Canada, Australia,
U.S. and Brazil together contain about 70% of
the world’s remaining intact ecosystems (Watson
et al. 2018b). e exceptional value of these intact
ecosystems for climate mitigation and adaptation,
water regulation, biodiversity conservation, and
maintenance of large-scale ecosystem processes
has been demonstrated by many (Watson et al.
2018a; Woods Hole Research Center et al. 2020;
Strassburg et al. 2010).
Soto-Navarro et al. (2020) demonstrated that
Canada is among the top countries with both
high carbon density and high ecosystem intactness
(Figure 5). e carbon density of both forest
biomass and soil has been mapped by World
Wildlife Fund Canada (Arabian et al. 2019),
showing that carbon density is not equally
distributed across the country (Figure 6).
Forest harvesting targets carbon-dense old-growth
stands – referred to as ancient or primary forests
internationally - because they provide the best
quality and highest yield timber. As a result,
old-growth stands are becoming increasingly
rare (Didion et al. 2007; Statistics Canada 2018;
Gorley and Merkel 2020).
FIGURE 5: Map showing the overlap of carbon dense areas and areas of high irreplaceability for biodiversity. For Canada this is in
Western Canada, including coastal and interior BC forests, Alberta, North, Hudson Bay Lowlands, Boreal Forests of Quebec, Ontario and
NL, and parts of Nova Scotia. The BIp (Proactive biodiversity index) represents areas of high local biodiversity (high richness and range size
rarity of remaining species, high local intactness and high average habitat condition across the broader area). These areas urgently require
targeted protection to ensure the long-term persistence of biodiversity and to maximize the climate mitigation potential of ecosystems.
Source: (Soto-Navarro et al. 2020). Reprinted with permission.
Carbon D
20 40 60 80 100
Carbon storage in primary or old-growth
ere is general agreement that old-growth
forests in Canada store a lot of carbon and that
anywhere from 40% (DellaSala 2018) to 66%
(Woods Hole Research Center et al. 2020) is lost
to the atmosphere in the first 5 years after logging.
Carbon accounting for all of the remnant old-
growth forests, and particularly those forests with
big trees on productive lands, remains elusive.
Examples of estimated stored carbon in some of
these forests range from:
197 to 468 Mt carbon for the old-growth forests
on high productivity sites in British Columbia
(calculated using Price et al. 2020; Stinson et
al. 2011; Mosseler et al. 2003a; Fredeen et al.
2005). Note however that the lower estimate
does not include soil carbon;
4.8 Mt for the 240 km2 of unprotected old-
growth forests of Algonquin Park, Ontario
(calculated using Henry 2020);
24,850 to 137,850 Mt C for the boreal forests
over 100 years old; 13,694 to 75,960 Mt C
for the boreal forests over 200 years; 8,114 to
45,010 Mt C for the boreal forests over 300 years.
Old-growth boreal forest carbon is calculated
from Bradshaw and Warkentin (2015) and
Wiken et al. (1996).
e age of boreal forests varies across the country,
with some stands well over 200 years in eastern
Quebec and sub-boreal British Columbia and
over 100 years in Manitoba (Kneeshaw and
Gauthier 2003). 71%, 80% and 89% of the
carbon in old-growth boreal forests 100 years, 200
and 300 years old, respectively, is in the Boreal
Cordillera, Hudson Plains, Eastern Boreal Shield,
and Eastern Taiga Shield ecozones of Yukon,
Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland
and Labrador. Boreal forests are generally younger
in Western Canada because of more frequent and
extensive natural disturbance by forest fires. It
might seem counter-intuitive that older boreal
forests store less carbon than younger boreal
forests. On a per hectare basis, the older forests
store more carbon. However, the larger area of the
100 year boreal forests, compared to the 300 year
boreal forests, results in more total carbon being
stored in the 100-year old forest.
FIGURE 6: Areas of high carbon density in Canada. Reducing GHG emissions by protecting carbon-dense ecosystems from both the
loss of their carbon stores and their ability to continue to sequester CO2 is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in
the short term (i.e. before 2030) using Natural Climate Solutions. In Canada, the areas storing the most above ground carbon are found
in British Columbia and throughout the boreal forest and the Maritimes. The areas with the highest density of soil carbon are found in
Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Northern Ontario and the Yukon/Northwest Territories boundary. These maps and accompanying
analysis were created by WWF-Canada 2019 and are used with permission from WWF Canada. Source: (Arabian et al. 2019).
Forest Biomass Soil Carbon
Very High
Very Low
Carbon dioxide sequestration by forests
Some controversy exists around the role of old-
growth forests in carbon sequestration. For many
years it was believed that once a forest reaches a
certain age, depending on a number of biological
and environmental parameters, it no longer
sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere. is was
used as a rationale for targeting old-growth forests
for logging. More recent research has shown that
old-growth forests continue to sequester CO2 from
the atmosphere, thereby continually increasing their
carbon stores, for up to 400 years (Morales-Hidalgo
et al. 2015; Gray and Whittier 2017; DellaSala 2018).
Estimates of CO2 sequestration in old-growth
forests range from:
0.14 to 2.7 Mt CO2 per year for the 4,150 km2
old-growth forests on the most productive sites
in British Columbia (Gray et al. 2016; Canadian
Council of Forest Ministers 2018);
925 Mt, 510 Mt, 302 Mt CO2 per year for boreal
forests older than 100 years, 200 years and 300
years, respectively. Most of these old-growth
boreal forests are in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba
and Newfoundland and Labrador. Boreal forests
are generally younger in Western Canada because
of the more frequent and extensive disturbance
by fire (calculated using data from: Bergeron
and Fenton 2012; Canadian Council of Forest
Ministers 2018; Wiken et al. 1996).
Converting old-growth forests with high carbon
stocks and low CO2 sequestration rates into young,
fast-growing plantations with low carbon stocks
but higher CO2 sequestration rates, has a negative
impact on the net carbon balance. is is because
the large initial loss of carbon from harvesting
cannot be compensated for within a conceivable
period by the additional CO2 sequestration in the
growing plantation and storage in harvested wood
products (Böttcher and Lindner 2010; Schulze et al.
2000; Kurz et al. 1998).
Carbon debt
One way to think about the impacts of logging
on climate change mitigation is to consider how
long it takes to recover the stored carbon and
the carbon sequestering properties after logging,
i.e. examining the so-called ‘carbon debt’. Some
examples of carbon debt are:
It takes 100 (Crowther et al. 2015) to more than
250 years (Harmon et al. 1990) after clearcut
logging for a forest to reach its original level of
carbon storage;
Where stand-replacing natural disturbances
are infrequent, such as the old-growth in BC’s
highly productive sites and boreal old-growth
in parts of Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and BC
with fire intervals over 200 years (Kneeshaw and
Gauthier 2003), transition from a natural forest
to a managed forest results in a 42% reduction
in carbon content of the managed forest (Kurz
et al. 1998; Lewis et al. 2019);
It takes 15 (Rooney et al. 2012) to 20 years
(Lewis et al. 2019) for a freshly planted forest to
exceed carbon emissions from decomposition of
organic matter and become a net carbon sink;
Increasing the use of wood from the boreal forest
to replace coal in power plants or to generate
liquid biofuels from wood creates a carbon debt
of 190 to 340 years (Holtsmark 2012).
FIGURE 7: The small remaining area of primary forest on
high productivity sites in BC (~ 415,000 ha) is believed to
be one of the most carbon dense ecosystems in the world.
This small area will release up to 526 Mt CO2e when logged.
Its vulnerability to logging makes it particularly important
for immediate protection, both from carbon dynamics and
biodiversity viewpoints. Older boreal forests are also important,
particularly for below ground carbon storage. However, a smaller
area is under imminent threat of logging. Although release of
stored carbon from older boreal forests is estimated at about
60 Mt CO2e over the next few years, over the long-term, release
of carbon stores from currently unprotected boreal forests over
200 years old could reach up to 174 billion tonnes (Gt) CO2e.
Primary Forests on High
Productivity Sites in BC
Boreal Forests > 200 years
Emissions Reductions by Maintaining Stored
Carbon in Forests Under Imminent Threat
from Logging (Mt CO2e)
Global grasslands, accounting for 40% of the
terrestrial land mass, sequester approximately
0.5 Gt of carbon per year and store up to 343 Gt
in the top metre of their soils. Carbon stocks
in temperate and boreal grasslands, like those
in Canada, have some of the highest carbon
stocks in the world (Lorenz and Lal 2018).
Most of Canadas original 615,000 km2 of native
grasslands were lost to other uses prior to 1990
(Wang et al. 2014), including 15-19% of British
Columbias Bunchgrass sagebrush, 70% of Prairie
grasslands, 99% of Tallgrass prairie grasslands
in Saskatchewan and 97% of Tallgrass savannah
in Ontario (Federal Provincial and Territorial
Governments of Canada 2010c).
Scientists agree a moratorium on further
conversion of Prairie grasslands to crop agriculture
is critical to protect carbon storage but also to
provide habitat for declining grassland species.
Since 1970, populations of grassland birds have
declined by 57% and species dependent on
native grasslands by 87% (North American Bird
Conservation Initiative Canada 2019).
Carbon storage in grasslands
Canadas remaining 12,700 km2 of native Prairie
grasslands store an estimated 2 to 3 billion tonnes
(Gt) or 2,000 to 3,000 Mt of carbon. Ensuring no
further conversion of Prairie grasslands could avoid
emissions of 381 to 1905 Mt of stored carbon. is
represents a loss of 30 to 50% of the stored carbon.
Carbon sequestration in grasslands
e remaining native prairie grasslands sequester
about 2.41 Mt CO2 per year. Most of the
sequestration of atmospheric CO2 from prairie
grasslands would be lost by conversion to cropland
or other uses.
Globally peatlands, tropical, temperate and boreal,
remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in
deep layers of organic soil, which builds up over
hundreds to thousands of years. Global peatlands
store 600 Gt of carbon – equivalent to 30% of the
worlds carbon stocks (Moomaw et al. 2018).
Carbon storage in peatlands
Canadian peatland systems store 136,700 to
154,000 Mt of carbon. Note that there is some
double counting as these numbers are also
included in boreal forest on peatlands (Carlson et
al. 2009). Hudson Plains in Northern Canada is
a significant and largely intact peatland complex
Wild bison herd on prairie grassland. Photo: Nanney/istock
covering 353,000 km2. It provides habitat for
many species of national and international
concern and is only 12.8% protected (Abraham et
al. 2011). Eighty-eight percent,
78% and 69% of the boreal
forests in the Hudson Plains are
over 100 years, 200 years and
300 years old, respectively. e
peatland forests of the Hudson
Plains sequester 74.6 Mt of CO2
per year (Bergeron and Fenton
2012; Wiken et al. 1996).
Because peatland soils store so
much carbon, disturbing peatlands
for development projects can result
in turning a carbon sink into a
carbon source fairly quickly. For
example, the carbon impacts from
changes to land approved for oil
sands development in Alberta will release between
41.8 and 173.6 Mt CO2 and reduce carbon
sequestration potential by 57.34 to 72.41 Mt CO2
per year (Rooney et al. 2012).
Because it is difficult to assess the imminent threat
to peatlands, other than from the oil sands and
peat extraction, peatlands were not considered
in the totals for CO2 sequestration and avoided
emissions. However, avoiding threats from human
activities, as they are identified, would result in
significant reductions in GHG emissions from
peatland loss. Forests on peatlands are included in
the calculations for boreal forest.
Permafrost regions store 60% of the world’s soil
carbon in 15% of the global soil area amounting
to 18 million km2 of permafrost soils. e
projected thawing of terrestrial and subsea
Arctic permafrost – and the subsequent release
of methane, which is estimated to have 87 times
more global warming potential than CO2 over
20 years (IPCC 2019) – is expected to increase the
loss of soil carbon and affect the global terrestrial
carbon sink (Turetsky et al. 2020).
Blue carbon refers to the vegetated coastal zones
on the near-shore. e most important blue
carbon ecosystems for climate change mitigation
and adaptation are mangroves, eelgrass beds and
saltmarshes. Having the longest coastline in the
world, over three coasts, Canada has both eelgrass
and saltmarshes. Although coastal blue carbon
systems sequester more carbon than forests, on an
area basis, the sheer extent of forests makes forests
a larger carbon sink (Smith et al. 2020).
Conservation of blue carbon ecosystems have
significant co-benefits for biodiversity, livelihoods
and protection of coastal communities. Blue carbon
ecosystems provide protection from storm surges,
flooding and sea-level rise (omas et al. 2020)
and serve as nurseries and habitat for commercial
fisheries species as well as ‘at-risk’ marine species.
e role of blue carbon for climate change
mitigation is particularly relevant for climate
change adaptation, which is also an important
component of NDCs to the Paris Agreement.
Peatlands in Yukon. Photo: Pi-Lens/
Tidal saltmarshes are found from the Arctic to
Patagonia. ey provide a variety of ecosystem
services such as food and habitat for fish and
birds, sinks for pollutants, protection from
storms, and climate change mitigation. Like
other blue carbon ecosystems, they are carbon
dense on a per hectare basis. Estimates of
global saltmarsh area varies from 22,000 to
400,000 km2 (Duarte et al. 2013) to 55,000
km2 (McOwen et al. 2017). Carbon storage in
global saltmarshes has been estimated from 0.4
to 6.5 Gt C (Duarte et al. 2013) to 9.8 to 19.9
Gt (Fourqurean et al. 2012) to 0.09 to 3 Gt
(Ouyang and Lee 2020). Global estimates of
carbon sequestration by saltmarshes vary widely
(4.8 - 87.3 Mt/year (Duarte et al. 2013); 27.4
– 40 Mt/year (Fourqurean et al. 2012); 0.9 -
31.4 Mt of CO2/year (Ouyang and Lee 2020).
Seventy-seven percent (330 km2) of pre-existing
saltmarshes in the Bay of Fundy have been
drained. Today Bay of Fundy saltmarshes cover
101 km2 and store 14.2 Mt of carbon (Wollenberg
et al. 2018). By the first half of the 20th century,
70% of the Fraser River estuary and 32% of
estuaries on the east coast of Vancouver Island had
been lost. Much of these lost estuaries contained
saltmarshes. Although saltmarshes in Northern
Canada are more sheltered from development
than those in the south, one third of the saltmarsh
area in the Hudson Plains has been destroyed by
foraging pressure from increasing populations
of Lesser Snow Geese (Federal Provincial and
Territorial Governments of Canada 2010a). In
addition, it is anticipated that sea-level rise will
submerge over one third of remaining saltmarshes
of the Fraser River (e Review Panel for the
Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project 2020).
is recommendation proposes protection of
the remaining saltmarshes. However, it appears
that environmental assessments of coastal
developments do not consider the climate change
impacts of development on saltmarshes. For
example, the proponents of the Robert Bank
Terminal 2, outside of Vancouver, have proposed
to remove 12.26 hectares of saltmarsh. e offset
proposed in this case (15 ha) is significantly
smaller than the 4:1 offset (49 ha) proposed by
Environment and Climate Change Canada (e
Review Panel for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2
Project 2020).
Saltmarsh at high tide in Prince Edward Island.
Photo: Crwpitman/istock
Carbon storage and sequestration in
saltmarshes in Canada
Although estimates of the area coverage of
saltmarshes in Canada vary, the most recent
estimate is 1,113 km2 (McOwen et al. 2017).
Canadian saltmarshes are estimated to store
anywhere from 1.1 to 971 Mt of carbon and
sequester 0.2 to 4.42 Mt CO2/year (see Annex I
notes 21-25). ese numbers are comparable to
those found for saltmarshes in Clayoquot Sound
British Columba (Chastain 2017).
Eelgrass beds are important as both carbon sinks
and stores. Carbon storage in global eelgrass beds
is estimated at 4.2 to 8.4 Gt carbon (Duarte et al.
2013). Global eelgrass beds sequester between 48
and 112 Mt CO2 per year. Eelgrass beds provide
critical habitat for a multitude of fish, invertebrate
and other species using eelgrass as nurseries and
shelter from predators. For instance, 20% of
the world’s most-landed fish species use eelgrass
as nursery areas (Baez 2020). Eelgrass beds also
provide blue infrastructure, protecting coastal
communities from storm surges and coastal erosion,
as do saltmarshes.
Carbon sequestration and storage in
eelgrass beds
Canada has mapped at least 643 km2 (64,300 ha) of
eelgrass, but mapping is incomplete. For northern
British Columbia, there are almost 10,000 km of
eelgrass measured with line data, but no area data. A
fair amount of eelgrass area data exists for Canadas
east coast and in Hudson Bay, but it is not included
in total eelgrass area mapped by the Commission
for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). As well,
observations of eelgrass occurrences in the Gulf of
St. Lawrence and the Maritimes are based on point
observations without area data (CEC 2016). For this
analysis it was assumed, based on the gaps in area
data, and the amount of linear and point occurrence
data that is known, that Canada has at least twice the
area of eelgrass as has currently been mapped.
Canadas eelgrass beds are estimated to store 7.8
to 52.8 Mt of carbon and to sequester 0.1 to
0.71 Mt CO2 per year.
Eelgrass bed, Vancouver Island, BC. Photo: David Denning
Grow 30% of Canadas forests over 60 years old to their
ecological potential, recreating a more resilient forest
and replacing some of the old forests that have been
lost. To make these gains permanent these forests
must be protected.
Second growth forest, coastal BC. Photo: Risa Smith
The practice of letting young forests grow old to recreate some of the characteristics of lost
primary forests is referred to as proforestation. Approximately 75% of Canada’s managed
forests (2,468,876 km2) (Table 5, NFIS 2020) and almost all harvested areas (756,000 ha in
2017) fall within the over 60-year age class (Statistics Canada 2018).
Thirty percent of the managed forest over 60 years (~ 74,066,290 ha) sequesters about
474 Mt CO2 from the atmosphere each year. Implementation of recommendation 2 would
reduce GHG emissions by 1.5 Mt CO2 per year, by maintaining the carbon sink on the
relatively small portion of this forest under imminent threat of logging. These savings in
GHG emissions would increase over time. Annual GHG emissions would be further reduced
by 126 Mt CO2e, by maintaining stored carbon. Beyond 2050, this recommendation would
result in the prevention of between 17.7 and 98.5 Gt CO2e of stored carbon being released.
As a co-benet for biodiversity, and attainment of Canada’s commitment to protect 25% of
its lands and waters by 2025, and 30% by 2030, terrestrial protected areas would increase
by 1.4 million km2.
Growing existing forests to ecological maturity is
a low-cost approach to improving the ability of
forests to sequester carbon and create more of the
increasingly rare old-growth habitat for species
dependent on it (Moomaw et al. 2019). Although
defining of old-growth forests is complex, there
is some agreement that naturally regenerated
forests in Canada have old-growth characteristics
when they reach 120 to 140 years for most forests
and 250 years for coastal rainforests (Gorley
and Merkel 2020). Approximately 14.6% of
Canadas managed forests are over 120 years
(NFIS 2020). It has been estimated that 60% of
British Columbias forests were in a state of old-
growth pre-European contact (Federal Provincial
and Territorial Governments of Canada 2010b).
Similar estimates are not available for the rest of
Canada. However, there has been a general shift
towards younger forests, largely as a result of
harvesting (Statistics Canada 2017).
Growing back forests so that they can develop
some of the characteristics of old-growth forests
important for biodiversity and carbon dynamics is
a practical option. Although intact primary forests
are irreplaceable, growing second growth forests to
ecological maturity is the only option for regaining
some of the important qualities of primary forests.
To enhance the biodiversity benefits of this action
special attention should be paid to ensuring that
the newly protected forests are connected across
the landscape, to allow for range changes and
movement of species caused by climate change.
e total managed forest available for harvest
would be reduced by 30%. Although only
1% of the managed forest is harvested every
year, the annual harvest would have to also be
reduced to ensure that implementation of this
recommendation does not put additional pressure
on the remaining managed forests (i.e. to prevent
what is referred to as leakage).
Logging in Boreal Forest. Photo: Onfokus/istock
Lengthen the harvest rotation in managed forests by
letting forests grow until they reach their full carbon
sequestration potential.
Intact boreal forest. Photo: River Jordan for NRDC
This action has been proposed by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers as one of
several long term forest management strategies to increase forest carbon stocks (Canadian
Council of Forest Ministers 2018). Growing existing forests to their ecological potential
is an effective immediate and low-cost approach that can be mobilized across suitable
forests of all types (Moomaw et al. 2019; Böttcher and Lindner 2010; Rijal et al. 2018).
A lengthened harvest rotation allows an increase in carbon sinks and stores, as well as the
development of some of the old-growth characteristics important for biodiversity. Also,
older forests are generally more resilient, providing a buffer from the unpredictable effects
of climate change.
Increasing the period between harvests on 25% of harvested land would result in an
estimated additional sequestration of 1.2 Mt CO2 per year for every year of delayed harvest.
Benets will be ephemeral because these forests will eventually be harvested.
Carbon dioxide is sequestered from the
atmosphere by forests at different rates depending
on a number of variables such as the tree
species, stand age, site productivity and climatic
conditions. In general, CO2 sequestration is more
rapid in stands up to 200 years followed by a
slow decline in the rate of sequestration. ere
is some debate about the age at which carbon
accumulation is maximized – anywhere from
about 170 years to 200 years (Gray and Whittier
2017; Gray et al. 2016). Although managed
secondary forests have reduced carbon stocks
compared to primary unmanaged forests (Böttcher
and Lindner 2010; Kurz et al. 1998), they still
have the potential to sequester additional carbon
for many decades or longer if allowed to grow to
ecological maturity (Moomaw et al. 2019; Lewis
et al. 2019; Keith et al. 2009).
Although the age at which forests maximize the
sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere is
under some debate, there is no doubt that the
current harvesting rotations are
far below that maximum. As well,
even past the maximum rate of
sequestration old forests continue
to sequester significant amounts
of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Simply lengthening the harvest rotation of
managed forests by 30 years on 25% of the
managed forest land that is harvested each year
could result in emissions reductions of over 36 Mt
of CO2 over those 30 years. Of course, additional
greenhouse gas emissions reductions from the
increased stored carbon during the extended
rotation period would not be permanent.
Second-growth Douglas Fir forest, Coastal BC. Photo: Risa Smith
Plant 2 billion trees and quantify the GHG emissions
benets of ongoing saltmarsh and eelgrass restoration.
These are two of many possible long-term commitments
needed to restore lost and degraded ecosystems that
sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, are important
carbon stores and provide co-benets for biodiversity
and other ecosystem services.
Juvenile Atlantic herring in eelgrass bed, Nova Scotia. Photo: Nick Hawkins/
Restoration is a long-term commitment, as measureable results for both climate change and
biodiversity may take several decades or more to be realized. Natural ecosystems particularly
important for restoration are forests, peatlands, grasslands and coastal vegetation,
particularly saltmarshes and eelgrass beds. Restoration of natural elements on agricultural
lands could also be an important focus for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
It is beyond the scope of this report to quantify the carbon benets from the full spectrum of
restoration possibilities. However, all pathways that lead to keeping temperature increases at
2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels require removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The most
ecient and effective way to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is through sequestration by
natural ecosystems, so the long-term benets from restoration are guaranteed.
Planting 2 billion trees could result in long term emissions reductions of 4 to 8 Mt CO2
per year, with benets not realized until after 2050. Restoration of only 20% of the lost
saltmarshes in the Bay of Fundy, for example, could sequester an additional 3.55 Mt of
CO2 per year.
In their now famous paper in Science, Bastin et
al. (2019) suggested that a massive tree planting
program, on 0.9 billion hectares of degraded
land, could increase forested area by 25% and
store more than 200 Gt of additional carbon at
maturity. More than half of the planting proposed
would take place in six countries: Russia, United
States, Australia, Brazil, Canada and China. In
response, the World Economic Forum launched
a platform to facilitate the planting of 1 trillion
trees (World Economic Forum 2020). Canada
announced its intention to contribute to the
initiative by investing $3 billion in planting
2 billion trees over 10 years.
e amount of carbon that could be sequestered
from the atmosphere from 1 trillion trees was
estimated at 1 to 10 Gt of CO2 a year. e
original report was heavily criticized and some
authors have suggested that the realistic carbon
sequestration potential of 1 trillion trees is closer
to 3-4 Gt a year (Vaughan 2020). As well, it
would take several decades for newly planted
forests to begin sequestering CO2, depending on
what was on the land beforehand. In the long
term, Canadas 2 billion tree program could have
significant benefits for biodiversity, as well as
climate change mitigation and adaptation, if the
right trees are planted in the right places and for
the right reasons.
To have real benefits for climate
change any afforestation initiative
must not infringe on important
non-treed ecosystem, like
grasslands, that are themselves
significant carbon sinks, and more
resistant to natural disturbance
than forests (Dass et al. 2018).
As well, like all forest restoration,
the co-benefits for biodiversity are
only realized if the newly planted
forests are diverse, resilient and
protected from harvesting so that
they can, over time, maximize
benefits for forest-dependent
species (Seddon et al. 2020).
An additional two billion trees in Canada could
sequester 4.1 to 8 Mt of CO2 per year, when they
have reached ecological maturity, somewhere
between 100 to 200 years.
Since 2017 Fisheries and Oceans Canada has
invested over $70 million in projects to restore
coastal habitats on all coasts (Fisheries and Oceans
Canada 2019). ese investments are helping to
restore lost and damaged blue carbon ecosystems
to enhance habitat for coastal and marine
species and the ability of blue carbon ecosystems
to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Unfortunately, the impacts of this restoration on
carbon sequestration and storage are not being
tracked, although the impacts of restoration of
coastal ecosystems on climate change mitigation
are well known. For example restoring just 20%
of the saltmarshes in the Bay of Fundy could
sequester an additional 3.55 Mt of CO2 per year
(Chmura and Van Ardenne 2018). Likewise, at
the same time that investments are being made to
coastal restoration, coastal ecosystems continue
to be lost through development projects (e.g. e
Review Panel for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2
Project 2020).
Saltmarsh at Cape Engrage Nature Reserve, Bay of Fundy,
New Brunswick. Photo: SimplyCreativePhotography/istock
Commit the necessary nancial investments to ensure
that NCS have a signicant impact on both reducing
GHG emissions and reversing the loss of biodiversity.
Sharp-tailed Grouse, Alberta grassland. Photo: bgsmith/istock
Currently investments in NCS are a fraction of those in hard infrastructure or technological
xes such as Carbon Capture and Storage. To make NCS a reality, investments surpassing
those on hopeful technological xes to climate change will be required.
To reach the Paris Agreement targets not only will
GHG emissions have to be drastically reduced but
long-lived carbon dioxide will have to be removed
from the atmosphere, in the order of 100 to
1000 Gt CO2 over the 21st century. All pathways
must be mobilized to attain this level of carbon
dioxide removal. IPCC (2018) highlights that
the potential of Bioenergy Carbon Capture and
Storage (BECCS) and NCS will both fall short
of what is needed, by 5 Gt CO2 and 3.6 Gt CO2
per year, respectively, at the current potential of
technology and effort in NCS (IPCC 2018).
In 2020 Canada announced its first investment
of $3 billion over 10 years in NCS (Liberal Party
of Canada 2020). While this is an important
step, it’s worthwhile to put it in context. By
2011 Canada had already committed upwards of
$3 billion in public funding for Carbon Capture
and Storage (CCS) (Mitrović and Malone 2011),
for an anticipated benefit of only 6.4 Mt CO2
sequestered per year (Canada Energy Regulator
2016), or 3% of the annual emissions reductions
needed to reach Canadas current climate change
target. While keeping global temperatures to
1.5 °C or 2 °C below pre-industrial levels requires
using all solutions, it has been estimated that
NCS could account for over 35% of global GHG
emissions reductions per year (Griscom et al.
2017), whereas CCS could account for at most
13% of global GHG emission reduction (Natural
Resources Canada 2016). Further and larger
investments in NCS are urgently needed.
e numbers in italics represent the total for a given category. e numbers
in bold represent what is under immediate threat, for example by annual
logging. Where there are only numbers in italics it was not possible to
distinguish immediate threats from longer term threats. Although data for
peatlands are provided they were not part of the totals in the text as it was
not possible to quantify the effects of short term human impacts on the vast
majority of peatlands, mostly because feedbacks from climate change are by
far the biggest threat to peatland carbon dynamics.
Initiative Total Area (ha)
Stored carbon lost to the
atmosphere if recommendations
are not implemented (Mt C)
Emission reductions from
retention of store carbon
(Mt CO2e)1
Emissions Reductions from
maintaining CO2 sequestration
(Mt) CO2/year
Boreal Old-Growth Forests > 100 years
(imminently threatened)
16,403 to 90,9803
60,200 to 333,898
Boreal Old-Growth Forests > 200 years
(imminently threatened)
9,039 to 50,1323
33,171 to 173,985
Boreal Old-Growth Forests > 300 years
(imminently threatened)
5,356 to 29,7083
19,657 to 109,028
BC old-growth forests on high productivity sites
(imminently threatened)
1306, 1677, 207 to 3098
787 to 1438
4786, 6147, 758 to 1,3388
2867 to 5268
2.79, 0.14 to 0.2910, 0.811
Native Prairie Grasslands 12,700,00013 381 to 190514 1398 to 699112 2.4115
Peatlands 1,136,000,00016 136,70016 to 154,00017 501,68916 to 565,18017 Very small18
Eelgrass 129,00019 7.8 to 52.819 28.6 to 193.819 0.1 to 0.7120
Saltmarshes 111,27421 27.3 to 971.122, 1.1 to 18.123 100 to 3,56422, 4.1 to 66.423 1.39 to 2.0224, 0.24 to 4.4225
Growing 30% of Managed forests
over 60 years to ecological maturity
(annual logging)
4,836 to 26,83028
17,751 to 98,45628
For example, on 25% of the harvested area
(annual logging) 189,00030
Planting 2 billion trees 40031 146831 4.1 to 8.031
1 One tonne of carbon is equivalent to 3.67 tonnes of CO2. To convert stored carbon into
GHG emissions (i.e CO2e), the stored carbon retained was multiplied by 3.67. This is a
conservative estimate, considering that in cases where portions of the stored carbon
are released as methane, the CO2e would be much higher. (See denition of carbon
dioxide equivalent in Annex II: Denitions).
2 The area of old-growth boreal forests for 100, 200, 300 years was: 144,495,880;
79,620,178; and 47,182,328 hectares, respectively (Bergeron and Fenton 2012). The
area logged annually for 100, 200, 300 year boreal forests was estimated as: 258,089;
136,702; 81,009 ha respectively calculated from annual harvest in 2015 by province
(Statistics Canada 2018). The total area gives a sense of the potential over the long
term for emissions savings from carbon storage. However, the annual logging area
represents the imminent threat and so the immediate emissions savings.
3 Anticipated carbon lost to the atmosphere from logging is 66% of total stored carbon
(Woods Hole Research Center et al. 2020). For old-growth boreal forests total stored
carbon was calculated using estimates for stored carbon without peat soils. Estimates
ranged from 24.9-137.9 (>100 years); 22.5-76 (>200 years); 13.3- 45 (>300 years) Gt C.
The numbers are signicantly higher for peat forests (Chen et al. 2010) but it is dicult
to assess which forests are on peat soils from the data available. The annual carbon
lost from logging is relevant for immediate emissions savings and is based on the
annual boreal forest harvest in 2015 (note 2) and storage of 180 tonnes/ha, which is
the average for carbon stored in the Eastern and Western Boreal (Stinson et al. 2011).
4 The area of old-growth boreal forest was as in note 2, the sequestration rate used was
6.4 tonnes/ha/year for mature managed forests in Canada (Canadian Council of Forest
Ministers 2018).
5 (Price et al. 2020) have mapped the old-growth forests in BC based on site
productivity. The area of old-growth forest on high productivity sites (OGHPS) that
grow trees greater than 20 m was 415,000 ha. Although 23% of BC’s forests are
designated as old-growth most of these are not the big old trees that people think of
as old-growth. The OGHPS represent only 3% of BC’s remaining old-growth and is not
protected. The area threatened by logging is based on the 2015 harvest of 192,600
ha in BC’s Montane Cordillera and Pacic Maritime Ecozones (Statistics Canada
2018), where most of the BC’s ancient forests are being logged. At the current rate of
logging it would take less than 3 years to liquidate BC’s ancient forests on these high
productivity sites.
6 Estimates of stored carbon in OGHPS in BC vary. For this estimate the stored carbon
in the Pacic Maritime Ecozone, where much of the OGHPS remains, of 475 tonnes/
ha (Stinson et al. 2011) was used. As with note 3, it was anticipated that 66% of the
stored carbon would be lost by logging. As with note 1, it was assumed that most of
the stored carbon is released as CO2 after logging and the factor of 3.67 was used to
convert stored carbon lost into CO2e emitted.
7 For this estimate stored carbon of 611 tonnes/ha from Pacic Northwest old-growth
forests was used as a proxy for OGHPS (Mosseler et al. 2003b; Harmon et al. 1990).
Other assumptions on the loss of stored carbon after logging and conversion of lost
carbon to CO2 emissions are the same as note 6 and the total area logged was as in
note 5.
8 For this estimate stored carbon from Pacic Northwest Coastal Montane of 754 to
1127 tonnes/ha was used as a proxy for OGHPS (Fredeen et al. 2005) . This estimate
was similar to carbon stores in Oregon old-growth forests of 724.5 tonnes/ha (Talberth
2017). Other assumptions on the loss of stored carbon after logging and conversion of
lost carbon to CO2 emissions are the same as note 6 and the total area logged was as
in note 5.
9 For this estimate carbon sequestration rate of 6.4 tonnes/ha/year was used which is
sequestration of mature trees in Canada (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers 2018)
and the area of OGHPS in BC and the annual area logged were as in note 5.
10 Calculated using sequestration rate range for 200 to 400-year-old forests in Pacic
Northwest of 0.34 to 0.7 tonnes/ha/year (Gray et al. 2016) and the area of OGHPS in
BC as in note 5.
11 The higher annual sequestration is based on 1.92 tonnes CO2/ha/year sequestered in
Oregon forests (Talberth 2017) and 415,000 hectares of OGHPS as in note 5.
12 This estimate is based on annual sequestration for mature forests of 6.4 tonnes/ha/
year, as in note 9, area logged in BC of 192,600 ha, as in note 5.
13 Area of remaining original prairie grasslands is 11 million ha. The area of native prairie
grassland that is currently grazed is 12.7 million ha. The increase is due to conversion
of croplands back to grasslands (Wang et al. 2014) .
14 Stored carbon in uncultivated prairie grasslands is estimated, using data from (Wang
et al. 2014), to be 1270 to 3810 Mt C. Estimates of carbon lost without implementation
of the recommendations is based on losses of 30 to 50% of the soil organic carbon
with conversion to cultivated agriculture (Agricultural Producers Association of
Saskatchewan 2017). Other estimates of total carbon in prairie grasslands fall within
this range. For example, (Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan 2017)
estimates stored carbon in uncultivated prairie grasslands is 2 to 3 billion tonnes (Gt),
which calculate to a loss of 600 to 1500 Mt of carbon from conversion of remaining
uncultivated prairie grasslands. Similar results are found for stored carbon using
(White et al. 2000) estimate 100 to 300 tonnes carbon/ha for prairie grasslands.
As with note 1 it was assumed that emissions from stored carbon were as CO2 and
therefore a factor of 3.67 was used to convert carbon lost to CO2 emissions.
15 Calculated from data in (Wang et al. 2014).
16 Area of peatlands and C storage of 136.7 Gt is from Munir et al. (2015). The
conversion to CO2e assumed releases of CO2. Releases from methane would be higher,
as the GWP of methane is 28 times higher than for CO2 over 100 years (see note on
carbon dioxide equivalent in Annex II: Denitions).
17 Carbon storage in Canada’s peatlands of 154 Gt from (Henschel and Gray 2007). The
conversion to CO2e assumes releases of CO2. Releases of methane would be higher,
as the GWP of methane is 28 times higher than for CO2 over 100 years (see note on
carbon dioxide equivalent in Annex II: Denitions). Also note that the loss of peatlands,
while important to present here, was not considered in the totals for conservation
because it is dicult to assess how much of Canada’s peatlands are currently
threatened. As well, some of the old-growth boreal forest, which was counted, is on
peatlands which would result in double counting.
18 Sequestration of carbon from peat is very slow and estimated to be 19-24 g C/m2/year
(Vitt 2016). As a result, it takes a very long time, centuries and longer, to recover the
carbon stored in peatlands, when it is lost.
19 Estimates for eelgrass vary largely due to poor information on the extent of eelgrass
beds globally and in Canada and the variability in eelgrass carbon dynamics depending
on the site and the species of eelgrass. Total area of eelgrass for Canada was
estimated as 129,000 ha, which is double the area documented in (CEC 2016), based
on the CEC (2016) note that Canada likely has double the area that they were able to
document. Estimates of carbon storage were made using global data and translating it
to the total area in Canada. Total area of global eelgrass is estimated as 117,700 km2
to 600,000 km2 (Duarte et al. 2013) . Global carbon stock in eelgrass beds is estimated
to be 4.2 to 8.4 Gt (Duarte et al. 2013). Releases of stored carbon were assumed to be
as CO2 and hence stored carbon was multiplied by 3.67 to obtain CO2e.
20 This estimate was calculated translating global eelgrass sequestration from (Duarte
et al. 2013) of 48 to 112 Mt CO2 /year into total remaining eelgrass in Canada, as
estimated in note 19.
21 Total area of saltmarshes in Canada of 111,274 ha has been calculated by (McOwen et
al. 2017).
22 This estimated was calculated using area of saltmarshes in Canada (note 21)
and the global carbon stocks in saltmarshes of 9.8 to 19.2 Gt C (Fourqurean et al.
2012). Global area of saltmarshes was taken from (Duarte et al. 2013). CO2 released
from loss of Canadian carbon stocks used conversion of 3.67 C to CO2e. This is a
conservative estimate as methane is also released from loss of saltmarshes, which if
included would make the CO2e higher.
23 Calculated using area of saltmarshes in Canada (note 21), the global area of
saltmarshes and the carbon stocks of saltmarshes of 0.4 to 6.5 Gt C (Duarte et al.
24 Calculated using area of saltmarshes in Canada as 111,274 ha (note 21) and global
sequestration of 27.4 to 40 Mt/year (Fourqurean et al. 2012).
25 Calculated using area of saltmarshes in Canada as 111,274 ha (note 21) and global
sequestration of 4.8 to 87.3 Mt CO2/year (Duarte et al. 2013).
26 Managed forest area over 60 years is 246,887,640 ha (Table 5 NFIS 2020).
27 233,910 ha represents 30% of the area harvested in 2015. The total area harvested
was 779,700 ha (Statistics Canada 2018). Emissions released from the total area
harvested were 4.9 Mt CO2 per year, using average sequestration of Canada’s mature
managed forests of 6.4 tonnes CO2/ha/yr (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers 2018).
Emissions released from 30% of the area harvested was calculated as 1.5 Mt CO2.
The harvest for 2015 was used because the area harvested by province was available
and that allowed a better estimate for the total carbon stored, as estimates of carbon
storage by ecozone were available (Stinson et al. 2011). Area for boreal forest greater
than 100, 200 or 300 years was taken from (Bergeron and Fenton 2012).
28 Stored carbon on 30% of the forest area was taken from (Chen et al. 2010), for Ontario
boreal forests, making it a low estimate for the more carbon dense forests in British
Columbia. It was assumed that 66% of the stored carbon is lost from logging, as in
note 3. The CO2e was calculated using a factor of 3.67, as in note 1.
29 Managed forest over 60 years is 246,887 km2, or 75% of the managed forest (Table
5 NFIS 2020). Sequestration was taken as 6.4 tonnes CO2 per ha/year (Canadian
Council of Forest Ministers 2018) and the sequestration rate from the proforestation
with protection recommendation was for 30% of the forest greater than 60 years.
30 The area harvested in 2017 was 756,000 ha (NRCAN 2020). Total sequestration of
CO2 lost from the harvested area in 2017 was 4.8 Mt CO2 25% of the area harvested
is 189,000 ha. Sequestration was based on 6.4 tonnes CO2 per ha per year (Canadian
Council of Forest Ministers 2018).
31 (Bastin et al. 2019) lower estimate of 1 trillion trees sequestering 2.05 Gt/year
and (Vaughan 2020) higher estimate of 1 trillion trees sequestering 4 Gt/year, was
extrapolated to 2 billion trees. For carbon storage, it was assumed that the trees would
be protected and accumulate carbon for at least 200 years. CO2e was calculated, as in
note 1, by multiplying CO2 x 3.67.
Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are the mitigation and adaptation
actions and targets, defined by each country, that all Parties to the Paris Agreement on
Climate Change are required to submit. NDCs are to be revised every five years, and they
must demonstrate increased ambition over time.
Paris Agreement on Climate Change is an agreement by most Parties to the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to hold the increase
in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue
efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing
that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. It came into
effect November 2016.
Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) refers to leveraging the properties of healthy
ecosystems to address both climate change mitigation and adaptation, while also
enhancing biodiversity. NCS are a sub-set of what is often referred to as Natural Solutions
(NS) or Nature-Based Solutions (NbS). NbS are “actions to protect, sustainably manage
and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and
adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” (IUCN
Resolution: World Conservation Congress: WCC-2016-Res-069-EN).
Carbon Sequestration refers to the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the
atmosphere by carbon sinks, such as oceans, forests and soils. As natural ecosystems both
absorb and release carbon dioxide (CO2), through photosynthesis and respiration, carbon
sequestration includes the rate of absorption of CO2 minus the rate of release of CO2.
Globally it is measured as Megatonnes (Mt) or millions of tonnes of CO2 sequestered per
year. It is sometimes measured as Teragrams (Tg) or trillion grams of carbon per year. A Tg
equals a Mt.
Carbon Store is a natural reservoir of carbon that absorbs and holds more carbon than it
releases. Carbon stores are usually measured in billions of tonnes (Gt). e largest carbon
stores on earth are fossil pools (~10,000 Gt), soil (~2300 Gt), plant biomass (~550 Gt),
the ocean surface (~1000 Gt) and deep oceans (~37,000 Gt). e CO2 absorbed from the
atmosphere through carbon sequestration is stored in natural ecosystems as carbon.
Carbon Sink refers to any reservoir that absorbs more carbon than it releases, thereby
lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. In the context of NCS a carbon
sink is a natural system that holds carbon stores. Examples of carbon sinks are oceans,
forests, peatlands, soils and grasslands.
A Carbon Source releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. e primary
sources of CO2, which are responsible for most of the increases in CO2 concentrations
in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, are the burning of fossil fuels and
deforestation. Globally 87% of all human-produced CO2 emissions come from the
burning of fossil fuels (CO2 Human Emissions (CHE) 2017). In Canada, the burning
of fossil fuels for energy and transportation are responsible for about 82% of GHG
emissions (ECCC 2020).
Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) refers to the human activities
that impact terrestrial carbon sinks through land use, changes in land use or forestry. A
feature of LULUCF is that activities can increase or decrease the removals of greenhouse
gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere, thereby playing an important role in mitigation
of climate change (UNFCCC 2020b). In Canada LULUCF is used as a proxy for
carbon fluxes from natural systems, although at this point Canada does not measure the
fluxes from all of the ecosystems that are important for climate change mitigation and
Primary Forests “are naturally regenerated forests of native tree species, including
mangroves and peat forests, whose structure and dynamics are dominated by ecological
and evolutionary processes, including natural disturbance regimes, and where if there
has been significant prior human intervention it was long enough ago to have enabled
an ecologically mature forest ecosystem to be naturally re-established” (IUCN 2020). As
used in this document, it includes the term old-growth forest.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) and CO2-equivalents (CO2e). CO2 is one of several gases in
the atmosphere which absorb and re-emit heat, keeping the Earth’s atmosphere warmer
than it would otherwise be. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are
increasing the levels of the gases, known as greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.
Although CO2 is the most common GHG emitted through human activities, other
GHGs are also emitted, each with its own global warming potential (GWP), with the
CO2 GWP as a reference set as 1. CO2-equivalent (CO2e) translates all GHGs into one
common unit based on their GWP. For example, methane (CH4) has a GWP of 28,
meaning 1 kg of methane causes 28 times more warming over a 100-year period than 1
kg of CO2 , which can be expressed as 28 kg of CO2e (Brander 2012; IPCC 2019). It is
worth noting that GWP is a bit more complex than described, as some gases are short-
lived in the atmosphere (e.g. methane) and others are long-lived (e.g. CO2). Measured
over 20 years methane has a GWP of 87 (IPCC 2019).
Only CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, and
therefore all measures of carbon sequestration can be given as CO2. Releases of GHGs
from carbon stores can be in the form of several different GHGs so they are usually
expressed as CO2e.
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We thank Griscom et al. for their thoughtful letter to the editor, responding to our paper (Baldocchi and Penuelas 2018) and expressing the opinion ‘we need both natural and energy solutions to stabilize our climate’. We agree with that. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Plans to triple the area of plantations will not meet 1.5 °C climate goals. New natural forests can, argue Simon L. Lewis, Charlotte E. Wheeler and colleagues.