Sunday, December 13, 2015

Working with nature to reduce our emissions

the green gavel goes down to signal Saturday's agreement in Paris

From The Guardian:

After 20 years of fraught meetings, including the past two weeks spent in an exhibition hall on the outskirts of Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed on to a legal agreement on Saturday evening that set ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets.

A child born today might well live to see the year 2100, but at the age of 85 what will her world look like, and how hospitable will it be to human life? Will the average surface temperatures of the Earth be two degrees higher than they are today, four, six?

No one can answer these questions definitively, but the best science we have argues strongly for aiming at the low end of that range. And any chance of that happening will depend on how closely governments around the planet follow the goals set yesterday in Paris.

Those of us living far north of the equator will experience the most dramatic effects of climate change, and regardless of what we do or fail to do, greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will continue to mess with the thermostat and deliver weather that ranges from dangerous to just plain weird.

Today, a little more than a week away from the winter solstice, cars are splashing through puddles on the streets and roads of Saskatchewan. Katepwe Lake still has thousands of acres of open water playing host to a great gathering of Canada Geese, common goldeneye, and other diving ducks. On the ice edge and in nearby poplar trees, dozens of Bald Eagles are waiting for an easy meal. Last week, local birders counted seventy-two. A spectacle to be sure, but unsettling just the same.
Image courtesy of Fran Kerbs, who counted 72 bald eagles at Katepwe Lake

To meet Canada’s commitment in Paris, every province is going to need to do its part and put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases—either through carbon tax system, as B.C. and Alberta have promised, or through a cap and trade model, which Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec have announced. Saskatchewan—known as one of the nation’s biggest emitters per capita—has so far done little more than point to its, as yet ineffective, carbon capture mega-project.

But while we wait for that technology to prove that it can make coal “clean”—a dream that many say will never come true—this province has to find its own mix of measures that will, in correct proportion, contribute to our national climate change actions.

To its credit, our government has announced plans to convert our electrical production to fifty per cent solar and wind in fifteen years. A good start, though it would be nice to see some shorter targets in that transition, and a commitment to sustainable and ecologically-sensible siting of wind energy projects.

However, as we wait for some of these important measures to take hold—carbon pricing of some kind and conversion to sustainable alternative energies—there is another side of climate change action for which Saskatchewan is particularly well-positioned.

While engineered carbon capture systems and alternative energies can reduce our emissions through a kind of “technological mitigation,” we sometimes forget that nature provides her own systems of ecological mitigation that we can unleash and encourage in our natural and agricultural landscapes.

Climate change models and estimates of emissions going forward are based on current rates of emissions, including those caused by existing land management practices.

In a province where we have a lot of managed though sparsely populated landscape—forests, grasslands, wetlands, and cropland—even small shifts in land management have the potential to reduce our overall emissions. If we avoid ploughing grasslands, draining wetlands and retain more of our forested cover we will greatly reduce our rate of emissions. And if we restore wetlands and degraded grasslands and plant trees in the right regions we can easily increase the size of the provincial carbon sink and annual sequestration.

prairie wetlands, like this one hosting a Marbled Godwit, can store a lot of carbon

Even smaller changes in land management can help. In an as yet unpublished study on grasslands in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba, Dr. Diego Steinaker of the University of Regina found that an additional 0.8 to 1.4 tons of C/ha can be stored simply by reducing grazing from severe to moderate intensity (personal comment).

Saskatchewan is the right place for this kind of climate change action and much more.

We have thousands of private land managers—farmers, ranchers, and forestry companies—whose everyday decisions determine how much carbon the property they manage will hold and how much it will release. These land managers generally possess the skills and equipment required to introduce new climate-friendly land practices. All that is missing is motivation. As things stand, they have no economic incentive to change, and in fact there are many disincentives.

To shift to land use practices that retain more carbon, we will need market instruments and incentive-based public policy deployed across a range of managed landscapes from south to north in the Province. If we connect the right economic and policy minds with the right carbon and soil science minds, we can find ways to work with the private sector and industry to maximize our natural carbon storage systems without causing undue disruption in our land-use industries.

Along the way, if we are lucky, we might arrive at a province with more diverse and resilient landscapes and more adaptive land managers who can help us all face a changing climate.

North Saskatchewan River


  1. Interesting and thought-provoking thoughts, Trevor. The following IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) document, published in November 2015, really backs up what you are saying.

  2. Thanks Simone for finding that and sending it along. I will have a look.


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