Forests and Climate Change

Opening Statement to the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry

Forests and Climate Change

(Report 1—2023 Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

15 June 2023

Jerry V. DeMarco
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Thank you, Mr. Chair. We are happy to appear before your committee as part of its study of the status of soil health in Canada. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people. With me today is Marie‑Pierre Grondin, who was responsible for our report on forests and climate change, which we will be discussing this morning.

I would like to note that we have also recently begun work on an audit on agriculture and climate change, which will examine climate change mitigation and agriculture and will likely be of interest for your committee.

Our April 2023 audit report entitled Forests and Climate Change focused on the design and implementation of the 2 Billion Trees Program and on how Canada tracks greenhouse gas emissions from forests.

The federal government launched the 2 Billion Trees Program to counter climate change, enhance biodiversity, and support human well‑being. Through the program, trees will be planted across Canada, including on Crown lands, Indigenous lands, in municipalities, and on private lands, such as farms. The majority of tree planting activities are cost-shared with partners; however, certain groups, such as Indigenous partners, will also be supported with grants focused on capacity building, often with no cost-sharing required.

Although Natural Resources Canada nearly met its goal to plant 30 million trees in 2021, it fell well short of its 2022 goal of 60 million trees. The department had not yet signed any long-term project agreements with provinces or territories, which were expected to receive nearly 70% of all program funds. Delays in signing agreements with planting partners have not only significantly challenged the department’s ability to plant the number of trees it had planned for 2022 but will also affect subsequent years, which have much more ambitious goals. Given early tree planting results and issues with establishing partnerships, it is unlikely that the 2 Billion Trees Program will meet its objectives unless significant changes are made.

Since the end of our audit period, we understand that some progress has been made in signing additional agreements, but work remains to get the program on track to reach 2 billion trees planted by 2031. Even if that goal is achieved, the program’s initial targets for carbon sequestration by 2030 and 2050 will not be met.

In addition, the program missed opportunities to enhance biodiversity and habitat-related benefits over the long term by not designing the program with specific funding considerations for habitat restoration for all funding streams. For example, in the 2021 planting season, Natural Resources Canada funded more than 270 monoculture sites accounting for 14.4% of the total trees planted. Monoculture plantings do sequester carbon and may be appropriate in certain habitats. However, in the vast majority of circumstances, they do not support biodiversity and other benefits related to environmental and human well-being as much as more diverse plantings do.

Beyond the 2 Billion Trees Program, Natural Resources Canada, working with Environment and Climate Change Canada, did not provide a clear and complete picture of the role of Canada’s forests in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, emission estimates varied significantly in reports over the years because of recalculations prompted by data updates. This changed whether forests were reported as a net source of emissions rather than capturing emissions.

We found a lack of transparency about the effects of human activities and natural disturbances on forest emissions. Specifically, the departments’ reporting on how changes in forest management affected emissions was incomplete. Forest management activities such as clear‑cutting, partial harvesting, slash burning, and creating reserves for biodiversity were not clearly or separately reported on. In addition, Canada’s forests are becoming a net source of emissions because of forest fires and disturbances caused by insect outbreaks. For example, in 2018, emissions from forest fires and disturbances caused by insect outbreaks added an additional 26% to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, but they were not required to be included in the reported totals. This lack of transparency and accurate reporting makes it very difficult for decision makers to make informed decisions and for Canadians to hold government to account.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.