Reality check: The Liberals want to plant 2 billion trees to get to carbon neutral. Will it work?

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Canada Election 2019: Liberals announce plan to plant 2 billion trees over a decade if elected
Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau said on Sept. 27 that if elected, his party plans to plant two billion trees over a decade in an effort to help combat climate change – Sep 27, 2019

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is vowing that if re-elected, his party would plant two billion trees as one part of the plan to get Canada to net-zero emissions.

The pledge, released on Friday morning as hundreds of thousands of Canadians protested climate change, sets its sights on a 10-year timeline to plant those trees and to restore and protect forests, grasslands, agricultural lands, wetlands and coastal areas to the tune of $3 billion.

But it’s not clear what shape those replanting efforts might take: specifically, where in the country they will take place, what species will be planted, and how lessons learned from past reforestation programs will be adopted into those programs.

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“Planting these trees will have a real and tangible effect on lowering greenhouse emissions across the country,” Trudeau said at a Friday press conference.

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He also vowed the initiative will create roughly 3,000 new jobs to do the replanting.

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For years, tree planting has been a go-to summer job for a lot of young Canadians.

Companies across the country hire students over the summer to plant trees as part of reforestation work done by logging companies, oilsands firms, charities, not-for-profits and everything in between.

The federal government has also spent millions over recent years to encourage more tree planting: B.C.’s Forest Carbon Initiative got $140 million while the Northwest Territories got $1 million to plant roughly 120 hectares of forest last year.

The United Nations is even leading what it bills as an “aggressive” decade-long push officially starting in 2021 and lasting until 2030 to restore degraded ecosystems, with a big part of that including a push for planting more trees. Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg released a short film last week urging world leaders to do the same.

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That video billed trees as “magic machines” — but are they magic bullets, too?

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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one coniferous or deciduous tree grown in an urban setting over 10 years will sequester between 23.3 and 38 pounds of carbon per year.

The non-for-profit One Tree Planted pegs that number at 48 pounds per year.

The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, made up of provincial and federal ministers, also adds that one hectare of mature trees can sequester 6.4 tonnes of carbon emissions every year, which equates to about the amount of carbon emitted by a mid-sized vehicle over the same time period.

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Jeremy Kerr, a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa who studies biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems, says he’s surprised but encouraged to see the announcement coming so soon after the publication of what he called an “extremely important” piece of research.

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That study said the world could plant 500 billion new trees without impacting cities or agricultural land, and that doing so would remove roughly two-thirds of all the carbon emissions produced by humans since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

“Canada can’t plant 500 billion trees inside Canada but we can do our part,” Kerr said.

“Two billion trees is actually a pretty reasonable contribution to that total global requirement to address the huge pool of carbon that we’ve dumped in the atmosphere. Those trees pull that carbon right back out. This is incredibly timely because the science is now incredibly clear.”

Those benefits only work in the long-term, though, Kerr added, if they are done in conjunction with broader efforts to reduce emissions overall and in recognition of the impact that doing reforestation poorly can have on communities and local ecosystems.

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Malcolm North, a forest ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in an interview with National Geographic earlier this year that those leading the reforestation efforts need to be smarter about how they replant and more aware of the way it can change the existing environment.

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“The consequences of getting it wrong can be really destructive,” North said.

One of the case studies that report examined was the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and a study conducted by McMaster University researchers that looked at the impact of government efforts to enhance tree cover in the region on the way the fire burned.

It ultimately concluded that the planting programs, which had focused heavily on draining peatland and replanting it with trees like black spruce, contributed to the severity of that fire because the dried-out peat and the trees grown on it burned more aggressively than did peatland that had been left damp.

Kerr said that program — which planted trees with the goal of cutting them back down, not for capturing carbon — is an example of the kind of planting the Liberals would want to avoid if they are re-elected and put their pledge into action.

“In contrast to that sort of thing, where what you’re doing is taking one sort of natural habitat and wrecking it to create a spruce plantation, what you would be doing in this instance to address climate change is look at areas that were historically forested,” he said.

That means not looking at planting in areas that are wetlands or prairies, but rather areas that have lost their forest.

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“If we were in southern Ontario, the kinds of trees we would be thinking about would be predominantly deciduous. We’d be thinking about beech trees or sugar maple trees, things that grow in those areas naturally,” Kerr said. “Further north, you would be thinking about species that are appropriate to boreal forests.”

We don’t yet know the details of what the Liberals are proposing in terms of specific programs or where in the country they might be focused.

But Kerr said there has been extensive research done in recent years about what regions of the country are the best candidates for reforestation and that he expects would form the basis of any science-based recommendations by government scientists on where and how to implement the plan.

“The last thing government wants to do is spend money on something that burns down because they did it in a silly way,” he added.

“I’m sure that [government scientists] will be informing the policy process in a way that maximizes the likelihood that this is going to work.”

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