Planting Trees to Save our Climate: Then and Now

Michael Rosen

Michael is President of Tree Canada. Michael est le président d’Arbres Canada.

On September 27, our office took part in the climate strike in Ottawa, responding to the call to “show we care”. I was struck by the sheer volume of people and conviction in their eyes. Tree Canada firmly believes that planting mores trees is part of a natural solution to saving our climate. I had to reflect on how far we really have come in making climate change a substantial issue for discussion and action. As a long serving employee of Tree Canada, I am in a position to look at things from a decidedly historical perspective.

In 1992, Tree Canada was created with a mandate to provide leadership and promote public awareness, education and community action for the planting and caring of trees across the country” by “countering the effects of climate change.” All of that some 27 years ago, incredible!

Even at that time, when people were barely able to wrap their heads around concepts such as “climate change” or “carbon sequestration” or “greenhouse gases”, the idea that trees were capturing atmospheric carbon in its wood was somehow both fantastical but yet totally understandable. People got it, trees were helping the environment.

In those early days, Tree Canada made sure that there were “climate change experts” on its Board. Professor Nigel Roulet from McGill University and Professor Bill Freedman from Dalhousie University provided the first glimpse of the role of trees in the carbon debate. They produced a ground-breaking pamphlet, What Trees Can Do to Reduce Atmospheric CO2, which triggered an immediate need amongst Canadians to know more and to take action. Tree Canada was asked by our sponsors and donors to produce “carbon credits” for its tree plantings – a task which we undertook to build on our solid reputation of delivering ‘environmentally positive’ solutions to Canadians.

At the same time, Tree Canada was also being asked, through its Operation ReLeaf program to respond to horrific natural disasters, many of which we now know are related to a changing climate. It has since been observed that not only are the average mean temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide progressively rising with hotter and drier summers, but the planet is seeing a sharp rise in the frequency of chaotic and spontaneous weather events, whose toll on trees in Canada and the world has been incredible. These events, just within Canada that Tree Canada responded to, included:

  • The Saguenay Flood (1996)
  • The Eastern Canada Ice Storm (1998)
  • Hurricane Juan (2003)
  • Kelowna Wildfires (2003)
  • BC Fires (2009)
  • Goderich Tornado (2011)
  • Alberta Mountain Pine Beetle (2011)
  • Emerald Ash Borer (2013)
  • Alberta Floods (2013)
  • Alberta “Snowtember” (2014)
  • Fort McMurray Wildfire (2016)
  • BC Fires II (2017)
  • Ottawa-Gatineau Tornadoes (2018)
  • Hurricane Dorian (2019)

Irony of ironies was that while I was attending a ceremony to mark the first substantive planting after the Fort McMurray wildfire on September 26, 2018, I found out about tornadoes landing in my home region (Ottawa-Gatineau). And even as I wrote this article, people were losing their trees to a series of freak, October snowstorms in Manitoba.

Increasingly Tree Canada had to get its collective act together on the carbon offset front. With the encouragement of more than one sponsor, we authored a carbon protocol in 2009 to systematically look at how we can make a claim with a high degree of certainty that x number of trees will sequester x tonnes of carbon. We worked with companies wishing to be “carbon neutral” by planting trees in Canada and families who wanted to compensate their emissions from some of their life activities, like taking a flight to go on vacation. We revised the protocol in 2015 with the work of Timo Makinen and others on our Board’s Carbon Committee, and our program, to demonstrably offset CO2 emissions with the planting of trees, blossomed.

That’s not to say there weren’t detractors. Some well-known environmentalists remained sceptical in the 2000s – trees die they said, forests burned. Tree Canada built in ways however to protect our newly planted trees: we looked at other plantings in case of failure, as well as purposely not including underground (as opposed to above ground) carbon in our calculations in case of losses. Our protocol was favourably reviewed, and our Grow Clean Air program continued to flourish.

Fast forward to 2019, where Canadians and politicians have realized (once again) that our trees are indeed one of the ways to effectively capture carbon from the atmosphere – so much so that it actually emerged as an election issue!

Our work continues in deep-rooted purpose, like never before we feel the urgency to help our planet and see a forest of potential to benefit Canadians.


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