May 4, 2021
Seamus O'Regan
Seamus O'Regan

2 billion trees in 10 years

The Canadian government announced an ambitious tree planting campaign. Can they pull it off?

Landscape Trades recently had the opportunity to converse with the Minister of Natural Resources, Seamus O’Regan, about the Government of Canada’s recent pledge to plant two billion trees over the next
10 years.

Landscape Trades: As a Newfoundlander who hails from a province known globally for its abundant natural resources and stunning natural beauty, what is your relationship with nature and trees?

Seamus O’Regan: I grew up in Newfoundland with the sound of waves crashing on the rocks. My family later moved to Labrador, where I could see the Northern Lights from our backyard. Protecting and preserving nature is deeply personal for me. And, the power of nature is incredible. It’s at the heart of our fight against climate change. So, we’ve promised to plant two billion trees over 10 years — and we’re going to get it done. The first trees will be in the ground this spring (2021).

In December 2020, you announced a plan to plant two billion trees at a cost of $3.16 billion over 10 years. How will that benefit Canada, individual Canadians and our biosphere?

The Growing Canada’s Forests (GCF) program will see two billion trees planted over 10 years. Its purpose is to harness nature’s ability to combat climate change and contribute to Canada’s efforts to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. By supporting the planting of two billion trees, GCF has the potential to remove up to 12 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050. Planting trees is a natural climate solution. A natural climate solution is one that enables increased carbon sequestration and storage by natural and managed ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, agricultural lands and coastal areas.

These activities can also increase community resilience to the impacts of climate change, such as flooding, thereby reducing the need for greenhouse gas-intensive and costly infrastructure. Moreover, planting trees that are expected to do well in a changing climate can improve the long-term resilience of our forests.

Beyond greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation, natural climate solutions can contribute to other federal objectives, such as Canada’s commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Migratory Birds Convention, advancing the government’s commitment to conserve 25 per cent of Canada’s lands by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030, supporting species-at-risk objectives, improving the sustainability of the forest and agriculture sectors, supporting healthy communities — including through increased green space, improved air and water quality, creating jobs for Canadians and advancing inclusive growth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

According to extrapolations of a September 2015 research report sponsored by Nature Journal, it is estimated that Canada now has about 339 billion trees, covering almost 39 per cent of its land mass. With the forest industry, private interests and all levels of government already planting between 500 and 650 million trees per year, how will the new tree-planting initiative be of additional benefit to Canada?

Canada is fortunate to have vast forest ecosystems that support the well-being of Canadians, including through the provision of wood and other renewable bioproducts. Nature is part of the solution to climate change: there is no path to net-zero emissions that does not involve our forests. Approximately 94 per cent of Canada’s forests are publicly owned. Under current laws, areas harvested on public land must be reforested, naturally or through planting/seeding. This amounts to approximately 500 million trees planted per year for reforestation.

To maximize the impacts of climate change, the commitment to plant two billion trees by 2030 is incremental, meaning the planting must be above and beyond current tree planting efforts that are required by law. The initiative is expected to lead to a 30 to 40 per cent annual increase in the number of trees planted in Canada.

Ultimately, Canada’s plan to plant two billion additional trees over the next 10 years is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 12 megatonnes annually by 2050, while also delivering biodiversity and human well-being co-benefits such as ecosystem restoration and the creation of up to 4,300 jobs.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimata 500 billion trees planted in the appropriate places around the globe would eliminate two-thirds of the carbon emissions created since the beginning of the industrial revolution. With almost 339 billion trees in place today, it would appear that Canada is doing its part to reduce carbon emissions. But, in your view, are we?

Studies differ in their estimates of the potential of forests and trees to sequester greenhouse gases, yet it is clear that sustainable forest and land management offers significant mitigation potential available at relatively low cost. That said, we need to accelerate action to fight climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy. This is why our government recently announced Canada’s strengthened climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, which will help achieve our economic and environmental goals.
The proposed plan, supported by an initial $15 billion in investments, will make life more affordable for Canadians, make communities more livable and, at every turn, focus on creating jobs and supporting workers in a stronger and cleaner economy. Planting two billion trees over the next ten years will add to the forest’s contribution to carbon sequestration as the trees grow, reaching their peak annual carbon sequestration potential in the coming decades.

How can Canada’s nursery and landscape industry most effectively participate in the tree planting campaign?

An initiative of this scale requires strong participation across Canada to succeed. The Government of Canada is actively engaged with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, industry and non-government stakeholders to realize this commitment.
That is why the government recently launched the Future Participants Request for Information.  This is an opportunity for organizations to share their vision and capacity to contribute to large-scale, single- or multi-year tree planting projects across Canada. The information received will help facilitate collaboration on future tree-planting projects. Response forms will be accepted until May 27, 2021.

How do you plan to measure the effectiveness of this tree-planting initiative over the next decade? What will success look like?

This initiative aims to create permanent additions to forest in Canada, improve existing forest and provide opportunities for securing on-going and long-term climate mitigation benefits. In addition to tracking the number of trees planted and associated greenhouse gas reductions, we will also measure biodiversity benefits and human well-being co-benefits, such as jobs created and the number of communities and Indigenous organizations supported through the initiative.