SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola
Are Canadian politicians finally paying serious attention to the environment? Recent events give us reason for optimism. On August 1, we wrote about the federal Sustainable Development Act and how all the political parties put aside their differences to support this important, new law. We’ve also seen a lot of progress lately on the part of some provincial governments regarding global warming. The Ontario government’s recent commitment to protect 50 percent of its intact boreal forest offers further hope that governments are getting serious about protecting the planet.
On July 14, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty committed to preserving 225,000 sq km of northern boreal forest, under the province’s Far North Planning Initiative. That’s an area one and a half times the size of the Maritime Provinces! It’s a significant commitment and it’s something more than 1,500 of the world’s scientists had asked for, including us.
The boreal forest stretches across the northern part of Canada, covering 35 percent of the country’s total land mass. It represents about one third of the world’s circumpolar boreal system and one quarter of all intact forests remaining on the planet. The region supports three billion migratory songbirds and more than 200 species of animals, including dozens of threatened or endangered species such as woodland caribou, grizzly and polar bears, wolverine, lynx and white pelican.
Ontario’s northern boreal region makes up 43 percent of the province’s land mass. Under the plan, half of this massive region would be protected in an interconnected network of conservation lands.
The announcement is significant not just in terms of conservation but also because it marks the first time a government in Canada has explicitly recognized the role that nature conservation must play in combating global warming. The boreal’s forests and peatlands absorb and store massive amounts of carbon, making them a hedge against global warming caused by emissions from human activity. Scientists estimate that Ontario’s northern boreal alone absorbs 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year.
It’s difficult to describe the global significance of Canada’s boreal forest. It’s one of the last places on earth where human activity hasn’t yet upset critical predator-prey relationships, natural fire regimes and hydrological cycles. And economists conservatively estimate that the ecosystem services provided by the boreal, such as water filtration, pollination, and carbon storage, have 2.5 times the economic value of market resources extracted each year, such as oil, minerals and timber.
As significant as the Ontario government’s announcement is, we have to be cautious in our optimism. For one thing, we don’t know if protecting 50 percent will be enough to conserve the region’s biodiversity. And we have yet to learn what areas will be put off-limits to development. Fortunately, the government has committed to working with First Nations in the region to develop comprehensive land-use plans.
We must also ensure that the government doesn’t use its announcement to protect the sparsely populated and largely unthreatened northern boreal as justification for further expansion of industrial development in the southern boreal, which is far more attractive to industries such as forestry and mining.
The areas not slated for protection under this plan – in both the northern and southern boreal – must be managed in a sustainable way based on sound scientific principles. And the government should reverse its recent decision to give the forest industry a one-year exemption from new habitat-protection regulations under the province’s Endangered Species Act.
Still, with this announcement, Ontario has taken an important and courageous step, one that we hope other provinces will follow. For example, Quebec has protected less than five percent of its own boreal forest, and although it has plans to increase this, it has yet to make a commitment as visionary as Ontario’s.
The recent attention governments have been paying to the environment is a positive sign. But successful conservation efforts can’t be limited to aspirational goals announced at news conferences. We all have a responsibility to make sure governments live up to their commitments.
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