Virtually overlooked among the attention-getting promises of last fall’s election (and seldom heard from since) was a promise by the Prime Minister that Canada would plant two billion trees in the next decade as a way of countering climate change. I hope the pledge doesn’t get forgotten in all the more momentarily-pressing issues of running a government.
Time will tell if Mr. Trudeau was serious about the huge commitment or if it was a way of delaying until the future the battle against climate change after he met with Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg when she was in Canada for the Montreal Climate Strike. He’ll need to not just embrace the promise, but mobilize government and the public to meet the goal.
We once took tree planting seriously in Canada. In 1968, then-Premier John Robarts planted a sugar maple tree at Queen’s Park, representing the one billionth seedling grown in a network of provincial tree nurseries across the province and planted, mostly on private land, over the previous 60 years. Governments of all political stripes have failed us since then. Bob Rae, then an NDP Premier, closed 10 provincial tree nurseries in the 1990s. In 2013, Stephen Harper, on one of his cost-cutting campaigns, closed the Agroforestry Centre in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, which had grown 650 million seedlings for the Prairies over the previous century. With all this infrastructure lost, gearing up to plant two billion seedlings will be challenging.
Then there’s the reality that a tree is not just a tree. There are 38 tree seed zones in Ontario alone and we must collect and grow the right seed for the right region and according to the conditions of each site (for instance, wet or dry). We need to be collecting and planting seeds right now for the later years of the campaign.
At a time when it’s hard to find people to take on physical work, we’re going to need a huge number of tree-planters to plant so many trees. And once the trees are planted, they need to be cared for until they can fend for themselves. Reporters for the Montreal newspaper La Presse last year visited tree plantings near Mirabel from 2013 and found 30 per cent of the seedlings had died.
According to a Swiss study released last year, Canada has plenty of land on which trees could be planted. The researchers estimated there’s enough room on earth for another trillion trees, and Canada has 78 million hectares of land available for “canopy cover restoration potential”.
Persuading farmers, who control a huge amount of Ontario’s land, to plant trees can be a bit of a challenge. Having spent many hours for a recent writing project, imagining what it was like to be early pioneers trying to clear thick forest to grow the crops to keep themselves alive, I can understand if there’s a sort deeply-hidden aversion to trees among the great-great-grandchildren of the settlers.
Still, over the years I’ve interviewed pioneering farmers who had proof, thanks for yield monitors, that by planting windbreaks, they actually improved crop yields. And trees provide so many other benefits, from storing carbon and cleaning the air to preventing wind and water erosion and providing habitat for birds and animals. Take a walk in a woodlot, and you can even feel your tension melt away.
Meeting the Prime Minister’s ambitious goal seems a huge challenge, but others have accomplished amazing things. In Ethiopia they planted 224 million trees in a single day and in Scotland they planted 22 million trees in the last year. I won’t hold it against the Prime Minister if we miss the target by a year or so, as long as the movement has momentum come 2030. To make it happen, however, we all need to get on board.◊