Canada needs to triple the amount of protected land and water

Against a backdrop of shocking declines in the health of the world’s ecosystems and species, a new report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says the federal government must commit to much more ambitious targets to protect the country’s land and water if it’s to have a chance of staving off a “nature emergency.”

The report says biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history — over one million species worldwide are facing extinction, according to a recent, groundbreaking study. It argues Canada must adopt aggressive measures beyond current targets by promising to protect and restore 30 per cent of all the country’s land and inland waters by 2030 — about 330 million hectares.

That proposed goal would almost triple the amount of land currently protected through measures by federal, provincial and Indigenous governments. As of 2016, 11.8 per cent of Canada’s land mass had been set aside for conservation.

But the advocacy group says Canada shouldn’t stop at 30 per cent — that it should commit to protecting half the country’s landmass from development (including extractive industries like logging and oil and gas) at some point over the next century.

Beyond committing to such a move at home, CPAWS — the only nationwide charity dedicated solely to protecting public land and water — says Canada also should secure commitments from other countries to preserve 30 per cent of inland territory at talks in China next year. Countries are sending representatives to a conference in Beijing in 2020 to decide on new preservation targets as part of the United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity.

“We need global goals and targets for the next decade that are on a scale that will actually tackle the nature emergency that we face,” Alison Woodley, an executive with CPAWS, said in an interview with CBC News.

“This is needed to reverse the decline that we’re seeing in nature, which is critical not only for wildlife but also for people, because nature provides all the basic necessities that we rely on, like water, food and oxygen.”

The federal Liberal government already has committed $1.3 billion over five years to nature conservation. CPAWS said that sum has given Canada a fighting chance of reaching its goal of protecting at least 17 per cent of land and freshwater by 2020.

Those government funds have helped already to buy new lands for preservation and conservation right across the country under the “Quick Start” initiative — through acquiring new protected spaces in Ontario’s Thousand Islands National Park, adding 30,000 hectares to Alberta’s Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park and expanding Quebec’s Parc des falaises and Halifax’s 927-acre Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Park, among dozens of other projects.

Another recent announcement committed federal money to buying at least 200,000 hectares of private land and fresh water in southern Canada, where experts agree nature and wildlife face the greatest pressures.

But even with that financial commitment and a promise to reach the 2020 goal, CPAWS maintains the 17 per cent target is still “woefully below what results of most scientific studies show are necessary to meet widespread conservation goals, such as maintaining viable populations of native species.”

“There needs to be a much greater recognition of the magnitude of the problem. The evidence is showing we really need to think on a much bigger scale and make sure we are focused on protecting and restoring enough space for nature to thrive,” Woodley said.

“We know what’s needed. We really just have to scale up those initiatives and that requires finances, political will and leadership.”

There’s an urgent need to act now, the group said, because since 1970, half of all monitored species in Canada have declined. Of those, half declined on average by more than 80 per cent.

The advocacy group maintains bolstering protected areas will benefit nature and improve air quality, soil quality, pollination and seed dispersal, continued access to food and medicines, protection against extreme weather (coral reefs and mangrove swamps protect against cyclones and tsunamis) and help with general health and well-being.

“As species decline, the capacity for ecosystems to provide clean air, water, food, climate stabilization and other essential services declines as well. It is in all our best interests, and in the best interests of future generations, for Canada to take swift action,” CPAWS said in its report.

Beyond protecting wildlife, the group said further investment in land protection also would help with Canada’s fight against the other pressing environmental ’emergency’ — climate change. CPAWS said more “natural solutions” to climate change should be championed by government.

The report said Canada has the potential to be a “conservation superpower” through more aggressive measures because Canada already is the custodian of 20 per cent of the Earth’s wild forests, 24 per cent of its wetlands and almost one third of its land-stored carbon.

In 2015, the forestry sector was an important “carbon sink,” pulling some 34 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions out of the air, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Canada already has identified increased investment in the forestry sector as an important driver of emissions reductions and a key part of the country’s plan to reach its Paris climate accord target. Under that agreement, Canada committed to lowering emissions by some 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

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