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To mitigate the impact of climate change, we need to limit our carbon emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Natural ecosystems’ ability to sequester carbon is one of the most effective methods of atmospheric carbon removal we have. Protecting, managing, and restoring ecosystems can improve their ability to sequester carbon and enhance the other ecosystem services they provide. A unified approach to monitoring these projects across all of Canada can help improve their implementation.
Nature is one of the most important tools we have to fight the climate crisis. Forests, grasslands, and wetlands naturally store and remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. When these ecosystems are protected, managed, and restored, their ability to sequester carbon is enhanced. These ecosystems are more than just their carbon; they also improve water supply, enhance biodiversity, provide food, and are home to cultural and recreational activities. Nature-based solutions aim to enhance these benefits (often referred to as ecosystem services) by protecting, managing and restoring ecosystems. Projects that specifically aim to improve the ability of ecosystems to capture carbon (often called nature-based climate solutions) are of particular interest at the moment as recent research shows that they are one of the most cost-effective methods we have to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
For my LEADS internship, I joined the Future Earth Sustainability in the Digital Age team to work on a project that aims to understand the current state of carbon and water modeling in Canada to scale up nature-based climate solutions across the country. The project also looks at how machine learning and other digital technologies are currently being used and could best be used in the future to implement nature-based climate solutions. The project involves leaders in sustainability from academia, government, industry, and non-profit.
For my part of the project, I performed a literature review to try and determine which frameworks and ecosystem service indicators we should use to monitor the implementation of nature-based climate solutions in Canada. We need to monitor more than just carbon content because if we design projects to maximize carbon removal, and carbon is the only thing we measure, we may negatively impact other ecosystem services. Secondly, I tried to ascertain if the data necessary to measure the ecosystem service indicators exist in Canada. Finally, I created an overview of current nature-based climate solutions in Canada to understand where they are taking place, where we should focus future efforts, and what current monitoring is happening.
I found examples of nature-based climate solutions across all of Canada in many different sectors and ecosystems. Examples include projects in BC that aim to enhance carbon sequestration in agriculture through cover crops and reduced tillage. Wetland protection and restoration projects on all three coasts as well as the prairies. And a national effort to plant 2 billion trees.
The number, variety, and extent of current nature-based climate solutions in Canada is cause for celebration. However, many projects do not list which indicators they monitor or what data they collect. Nor do many of the projects outline how they define and determine if the project was successful. Not gathering and publishing this data is a huge missed opportunity. If we share this data openly, it could demonstrate that the projects are successful, increasing the number that receive funding. The data could also determine what works and what does not, helping future projects succeed. And, the data would ensure that projects are not negatively impacting non-carbon-related ecosystem services.
Developing a unified approach to monitoring nature-based climate solutions across Canada will facilitate the gathering and sharing of this data. While a unified monitoring approach will be beneficial, it will also be challenging to create. The challenge is partly how vast Canada is and the variety of ecosystems it contains. What makes sense in the prairies may not be applicable in a temperate rainforest. As we quickly approach numerous climate thresholds, the need to scale up nature-based climate solutions becomes more urgent. To scale up these solutions, we need widespread collaboration and initiatives at the national scale. But, nature-based solutions need to be grounded in the specific context where they occur. Nature-based solutions will only be successful with the participation, support, and consent of local and Indigenous communities (see here and here). Thus, a unified monitoring framework needs to be specific enough that data gathered from one project is helpful for another but broad enough that the framework applies to any project in Canada.
This Sustainability in the Digital Age project is still ongoing, and my work represents just one facet of it. But, the key takeaways at this point are that monitoring more ecosystem services than just carbon is necessary to ensure nature-based climate solutions do not have adverse effects. Sharing that data as widely as possible will help the adoption of nature-based climate solutions in the future. And, monitoring these projects under a consistent framework will facilitate data sharing. Nature-based climate solutions are essential tools in our fight against climate change, and there may be one happening in your backyard right now that you can help implement.
Keywords: Nature-based climate solutions, ecosystem services, Canada
Rylan Boothman has a BSc Honours in Computer Science from the University of Victoria and is currently working towards a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University supervised by Dr. Jeffrey Cardille. Rylan’s research focuses primarily on historical forest monitoring with the first generation of Landsat satellite data.