The big picture

By Caroline Schultz

This issue of ON Nature is focused on climate change against the backdrop of the December 2009 conference in Copenhagen on worldwide strategies to combat global warming. So it’s an opportune time to consider what Ontario Nature is doing to address this vast issue in our own backyard. Individuals and organizations have rallied to the cause, sending petitions to politicians, staging events and flooding decision-makers with calls and letters urging governments, including our own, to respond to this unprecedented environmental crisis.

Such outreach efforts are extremely important – the more noise, the better. Will we look back and describe December 7 to 18 as the two weeks that changed our ecological destiny? Or will we regret a squandered opportunity that condemned life on this planet as we know it? An overall average increase of 4 C means temperatures will rise by 2 C in some places and 12 C (or higher) in others, rendering them uninhabitable. Computer models show the Arctic warming by 15 C.

Now is the time for action. Scientists say that 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity. Right now the atmospheric carbon dioxide content is 387 ppm, and trending up. At Ontario Nature, we understand that conserving and protecting a healthy landscape on a large scale is a critical part of the solution. That is why protecting forests is so crucial: after all, forest destruction is one of the largest contributors to global warming.

In Ontario, the massive northern boreal ecosystem is larger than California and stretches from the end of the road system, north to Hudson Bay. It is nearly pristine and still functions the way nature intended, providing habitat for all manner of wildlife, and capturing and storing an enormous amount of carbon in its forests and peatlands. Across Canada, the boreal region stores 186 billion tonnes of carbon.

Last year, Ontario’s Liberal government promised to protect 50 percent of the northern boreal region. Ontario’s commitment sets a high standard for conservation and the protection of biodiversity in this era of climate change, and it is imperative that this promise be implemented as soon as possible.

Queen’s Park is also looking closely at the use of biomass – crop waste, grasses and wood pellets – as an alternative source of renewable energy (“Power struggles,” page 22). But this approach is not trouble-free. Environmentalists are concerned by how much land would be needed to grow so-called energy crops, and how much forest “waste” would need to be hauled out of the bush for pellets. Because every part of a tree can be turned into pellets there is a great risk that debris such as branches and foliage will be removed and, with them, nutrients essential for forest regeneration.

No single solution to climate change exists. Saving a huge swath of our healthy, intact northern landscape, however, is a critically important first step.

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