‘Nature can be our saviour, but only if we save it first’: preserving nature is one of our strongest tools in the fight against climate change
Throughout 2022, The Pointer will be covering the 10 themes of the United Nations Decade of Restoration. The global movement was launched with the goal of inspiring initiatives that restore damage done to the planet—work that is necessary in order to achieve climate change targets aimed at limiting catastrophic global temperature increase.
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
A worn out adage for parents trying to teach children the value of money.
And while it’s true that polymer bills will never sprout from the buds of a maple tree, and coins will never sprinkle to the ground like acorns from an old oak, money can very much be found in trees—and every bit of leafy green life from blades of grass to rough hewn, knotted elms found across Ontario’s municipalities.
The carbon capture capability and air quality benefits of trees, or the mental health benefits of birds and other wildlife, or the water filtration and flood mitigation potential of wetlands are rarely taken seriously when development proposals are submitted to municipalities. These benefits are even downplayed, or councillors are sold a false bill of goods that these natural rewards can be recreated elsewhere, as easy as a magician pulling a rabbit from a top hat. It’s a sleight of hand.
The province has lost 75 percent of its wetlands since the 1980s. In the past 35 years, Ontario has lost 2.8 million acres of farmland to urbanization and aggregate mining. Approximately 98 percent of the province’s original grasslands and 80 percent of its forests—key habitats for countless native species—have been destroyed. Over 200 species are classified as at-risk in Ontario.
Urban greenspace can have real value in the fight against climate change if it is preserved properly.
(Image from Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
Yet the push for more sprawling growth in these sensitive, incredibly valuable lands continues. From warehouse developments in Caledon that threaten portions of the protected Greenbelt and millions of square feet of farmland, to Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass that have the potential to destroy the Greenbelt and Holland Marsh Wetland Complex respectively, or the push from mining companies in Ontario’s Ring of Fire that First Nations in the area have said are ignoring the impact on wetlands and watersheds in the area. Like so many others screaming into the wind, the original inhabitants of our continent are growing tired of watching politicians and private sector companies ignore their fears about the destruction of the natural world.
“We have watched as Canada and Ontario developed their own narrowly scoped, inadequate agreement and Terms of Reference behind the backs of First Nations. It only gives us a token role in the process. You purport to tell us – the only peoples who have ever lived and effectively governed the lands in the Hudson Bay Lowlands – how our lands will be investigated and how we will be involved. This is the epitome of paternalism and colonialism. This is unacceptable,” writes Chief David Nakogee of the Attawapiskat First Nation in a submission to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. “If development is allowed in our territory that affects the plants and animals on which we rely, it will be devastating to us as a people. Such impacts could and very likely would seriously interfere with the exercise of our Aboriginal and Treaty rights, our livelihood, our dignity, our cultural survival.”
The United Nations Decade of Restoration was launched last year. At its core, the 10-year effort looks to change the relationship humans have with the planet in order to save ourselves from the worst impacts of climate change.
The need to shift our collective mindset toward one that views nature as a partner, and not an obstacle, in this fight, was stressed in recent weeks by members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group, who presented their most recent report on climate change research at the end of February.
“Nature offers significant, untapped potential,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group.
The most recent report is a follow-up to the devastating 2018 salvo from the IPCC that laid out how the Earth was moving toward climate catastrophe much quicker than previously anticipated. It details how the longer climate change mitigation and adaptation measures are delayed, the more difficult it will become to implement them. Many solutions that are feasible now, will become ineffective as the planet continues to warm.
“As climate impacts worsen, and they will, scaling up investments will be essential for survival,” explained United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “Adaptation and mitigation must be pursued with equal force and urgency.”
Across the Region of Peel’s three municipalities, climate emergencies have been declared, plans are in place to try and mitigate the impacts of climate change, but are these investments going toward the most effective solutions? Or are valuable taxpayers dollars being spent on initiatives that make for a good photo-op but have few real benefits? In this second of a 10-part series on the UN’s Decade of Restoration, The Pointer will be analyzing these spending patterns, and applying the lessons from the IPCC report that makes it very clear where some of the lowest fruit of climate solutions are hanging.
“The best way to do this is to let nature do the job,” says Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “Backing nature is the best way to adapt to and to slow climate change.”
There are a list of successes in the Region of Peel when it comes to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In Mississauga, the Jim Tovey Lakeview Conservation Area is restoring a large swath of Lake Ontario coastline, a key habitat for many species, including migratory shorebirds. The Region of Peel has focused on electrifying its fleet of corporate vehicles and installing EV charging stations around Peel. The Clarkson Wastewater Treatment Plant and co-generating station uses wastewater to generate approximately 12 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power 1,000 households every year. In Brampton, the newly formed Centre for Community Energy Transformation is designed to be the connective tissue between the private and public sector on initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The areas of focus include retrofits of residential homes; an eco-friendly system of shared heating and cooling called district energy; energy efficiency among businesses in Brampton; and community outreach.
Restoration work is currently underway for a large section of Mississauga’s waterfront, transforming it into the Jim Tovey Conservation Area.
(Image from City of Mississauga)
These successes are celebrated glowingly by Peel’s elected officials. Unfortunately, the failures speak louder than the few small victories, as carbon emissions and loss of green space continue to increase across the Region.
The 2021 update to the Region of Peel’s 2020-2030 Climate Change Master Plan showed that between 2017 and 2018, Peel’s corporate emissions increased 59 percent, and the Region was not on track to meet its 2030 target, and that “action must accelerate” to meet most of the 2030 goals set out in the plan, with almost a quarter of the initiatives not even started.
“The Region is moving further away from its target of 45 percent (reduction in CO2 emissions) below 2010 levels by 2030,” the report states.
The City of Mississauga has made a significant push for investment into climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in its 2022 budget, pouring approximately $200 million into various mitigation and adaptation initiatives, including a variety of transit projects, studies and cycling infrastructure to encourage active transportation. However, its Climate Change Action plan approved in 2019 has seen little meaningful movement. According to a progress report released last year, two of the 89 items have been checked off the to-do list, 27 were underway, and 25 had yet to even begin.
Things are even worse in the City of Brampton. The Pointer has already reported that over the course of 2022 the City is spending more on widening a single roadway than it is on all of its climate and environmental initiatives combined, and progress on its Grow Green Master Plan has been nothing short of abysmal since Mayor Patrick Brown and the rest of council took office in 2018.
Brampton council’s complete lack of understanding of the issues that will have the heaviest impact on our changing climate over the coming decades was made clear in a meeting in January this year.
Councillor Doug Whillans attempted to bring forward a motion to have council reconsider its position on the environmentally destructive GTA West Highway, or Highway 413, on which councillors have tried to maintain a footing directly in the middle of the fence. First coming out in support of the highway—in the same meeting they declared a climate emergency—and then changing tact slightly, demanding that the 400-series highway comply with an unexplained “boulevard” design in the new Heritage Heights development that would create an unsafe bottleneck. The option was repeatedly turned down by the Province and appeared to be little more than a ploy by Brown to make it look like he was concerned about the environment, while knowing the idea made no sense and would never happen.
In January, members, led by Brown, showed their true stripes. Councillors refused to even table Whillans’ motion.
“All I was trying to do was reopen the issue and have a healthy debate. So much for our path to a sustainable Brampton,” Whillans tweeted almost immediately after his motion was defeated.
Climate change plans across the Region of Peel contain similar sentiments and goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a focus on transit and transformation, green infrastructure, energy retrofits and urban forestry management. All integral parts of any climate change plan. But they undervalue a key piece, which the IPCC has made clear can be one of the strongest allies in the climate adaptation and mitigation battle—our natural assets.
The trees, grasslands, wetlands, forests and other wild spaces that still remain scattered across the urban landscape represent the key to preserving our past into the future. The value these natural spaces can provide in the fight against climate change is immense.
”We must start dedicating thought and funding to transformational adaptation programs with nature at their heart,” Andersen with the UN Environment Programme states. “Humanity has spent centuries treating nature like its worst enemy. The truth is nature can be our saviour, but only if we save it first.”
Without putting nature at the forefront of future decision making, green spaces and waterways are at risk of being degraded or destroyed, impacting the various species that call them home, like the red-necked grebe in Lake Ontario.
(Image from Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
This is where the second theme of the UN’s Decade of Restoration, “finance restoration on the ground’ comes in. It isn’t about municipalities or provinces, or even nations, dumping money into climate change initiatives just for the sake of performative action, it’s about realizing what works, and pouring money into those efforts before it’s too late. Restoration and preservation programs have been shown to work, the IPCC states.
And while adaptation and mitigation measures are being initiated across the globe, the cost of these programs is a deterrent for many elected officials. Because adaptation projects take a significant amount of time to see any results, it means these gaps in investment and implementation need to be filled sooner rather than later in order to be able to realize the benefits.
In the Region of Peel, this means realizing the true value of its natural assets before they are degraded into a state where they provide little value, or are completely destroyed altogether.
For politicians concerned about the investment, the money they stand to lose by letting these natural assets be destroyed is actually much more than any investment they need to make for mitigation measures.
A previous assessment of the Credit River watershed, which stretches from Orangeville down to Lake Ontario, found that these assets provided $371.1 million in annual benefits to the surrounding municipalities. These benefits include flood mitigation, carbon storage and air quality improvement, to name a few.
Wetlands alone provide $186.8 million in value, and trees, shrubs and other vegetation realize approximately $5 million in value, storing 175,000 tonnes of carbon and removing 292 tonnes of air pollution annually.
Other studies suggest these estimates could be on the low end. A preliminary assessment of Peel’s natural assets put the value between $704 and $764 million.
However, the true value of these assets is hard to determine in Peel because local municipalities have yet to put any significant resources into quantifying their benefits. Putting a dollar value on the wild spaces, trees, wetlands and ponds that dot local cities can go a long way toward assisting decision makers when it comes to growing sustainably into the future.
Currently, when a development application comes forward that could destroy a small woodlot or disrupt a local tributary of Etobicoke Creek, councillors have really no way of quantifying the potential monetary hit from destroying these natural assets. The local conservation authorities can assist in providing environmental impacts and potential mitigation, but rarely can councillors hear how much money the city stands to lose by destroying environmental features. Like any out of sight out of mind mentality, this makes it easier to stamp approvals for applications that threaten our natural world.
One Canadian municipality taking the lead is the City of Saskatoon, which undertook a full natural asset valuation in 2020, discovering the city’s natural assets provide $48.2 million in value every year.
Both Brampton and Mississauga currently have plans to conduct similar assessments, but neither have neared any form of completion.
The IPCC has made it clear that enhancing our protections of the natural world must include measures at every level of government. Unfortunately, Canada’s failures are widespread.
In 2015, Canada signed the global Convention on Biological Diversity, agreeing to an array of commitments to protect and restore natural spaces. They have mostly failed.
Canada was meant to have at least 17 percent of its lands protected and 10 percent of coast and marine areas protected with conservation measures in place by 2020. By mid-2021, Canada hoped it could reach approximately 13.5 percent.
By 2020, Canada was meant to ensure wetlands were conserved or enhanced through restoration and management activities. However, according to a recent status update, “where wetlands have been monitored, they generally show declines in extent due to conversion to agriculture and other development.”
Without a shift in mindset that pours more financing into projects that prioritize and protect the natural world, 1.5 degrees of warming is all but inevitable. Hopefully that lesson can be learned in time.
As a National Geographic feature by Gordon Young reads:
“We are astronauts—all of us. We ride a spaceship called Earth on its endless journey around the sun. This ship of ours is blessed with life-support systems so ingenious that they are self-renewing, so massive that they can supply the needs of billions.
But for centuries we have taken them for granted, considering their capacity limitless. At last we have begun to monitor the systems and the findings are deeply disturbing.
Scientists and government officials of the United States and other countries agree that we are in trouble. Unless we stop abusing our vital life-support systems, they will fail. We must maintain them, or pay the penalty.
The penalty is death.”
That was written in December 1970.
It’s time for change.
More on the United Nation's Decade of Restoration:
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