The Green and Blue Carbon Stewardship opportunity in BC’s forested and marine ecosystems: Synthesis of key workshop takeaways

Carbon projects are currently the only financial tool available to implement ecological restoration and conservation in this critical time, apart from donations and very minor tax incentives. While we are waiting for a shift in worldview, we need models that demonstrate there are meaningful incentives in conserving and restoring the natural world that bring added benefits for water, climate and health.

On March 17, 2021, Transition Salt Spring, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and Brinkman Earth Systems hosted a virtual workshop exploring opportunities for blue and green carbon projects to help finance Indigenous-led stewardship of the Coastal Douglas-fir and marine forests that sustain the Salish Sea. 

Shared purpose

This workshop brought together policymakers, practitioners, land trusts and members of community organizations to 1) learn more about nature-based climate solutions and 2) identify opportunities to support local stewardship that aligns with and benefits Indigenous rights, responsibilities, and priorities, as well as shared goals of community/ecosystem health. 

The workshop opened with a blessing and land acknowledgement by W̱IĆKINEM (Erik Pelkey), Hereditary Chief of Tsawout and Community Engagement Coordinator with W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, starting the learning process off in a good way. Next, tutorials were hosted by local experts to acquaint participants with key carbon project concepts and common jargon. These introductory  sessions were designed to make the subsequent sessions more accessible. Later sessions included two panel discussions one by carbon project practitioners from across BC and Canada, the other by local elected officials and leadership; a talk exploring the sequestration potential of forests and fungi in the CDF region; and finally three breakout sessions  discussing 1) policy instruments, 2) technical tools, and 3) international projects with a focus on New Zealand.  

A series of webinars was created from recordings of all sessions, which are freely available to watch here. A transcript of the Zoom chat has also been made available so others can benefit from the enriching conversations and resources virtually shared throughout the workshop.

A brief history of carbon offsets in BC: Barriers and opportunities

Carbon projects are often seen as being complex at their best and contentious at their worst. The process of choosing a regulatory system (voluntary or compliance), designing a methodology, writing a project plan, and the dozens of small steps in between before the project is even verified is time consuming and expensive. The framework which has allowed carbon offset sales from the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR), for example, took nearly a decade to establish with talks between the Coastal First Nations beginning in 2003 and the first carbon credits hitting the market in 2012. 

In addition to these barriers, there are those who contest carbon offset projects because they are perceived to lower political ambition and are sometimes referred to as greenwashing. Three days before the blue/green carbon workshop, Dr. Kate Ervine, Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, was interviewed for an episode of the CBC podcast What on Earth with Laura Lynch titled Carbon offsets: Climate action or ‘dangerous distraction’?. Dr. Ervine cautioned listeners, calling offsets a ‘diversion’ and going on to explain that these sorts of policy tools provide governments with a way to “say that they are doing something [that] looks good, but it doesn’t require those really difficult, hard decisions.” Ervine goes on to clarify that offsets are not a strategy for lowering emissions overall and because of this shortcoming attests that they “lower our ambition to do what actually needs to be done”. 

This is a common argument against carbon projects, but is strongly contested by Joseph Pallant, another contributor to the blue/green carbon workshop and Director of Climate Innovation with EcoTrust Canada. During the workshop Pallant argued that “enabling communities to develop emissions reductions projects and generate carbon offsets allows governments to INCREASE ambition”. He explains that “ambition can be increased, and new emissions reductions achieved across Canada because it puts tools in the hands of new players and lets them access carbon finance. Without offsets, in a strange sense, polluters hold all the chips when it comes to what emissions get reduced. Polluters pay the tax; polluters are beholden to the regs. But this leaves communities without ways to resource action.”

Pallant’s arguments are especially poignant in the climate change context. Though some argue that climate change impacts (i.e. shifting baselines, changing ecosystems) make the stability and capacity of carbon sequestration projects too uncertain, Pallant maintains that the realities of climate change are actually an argument for “doubling down on smart climate projects” to sequester and store carbon “rather than just throwing our hands in the air and giving up”.  These ideas echoed the viewpoints shared by Daimen Hardie, Executive Director of Community Forests International in Sackville, New Brunswick, earlier in the workshop who acknowledged that we are at a point where a certain degree of climate change is already locked in. As such, we need to employ innovative strategies and “nature-based climate solutions are so exciting because they involve… living systems that are vibrant and that have this amazing capacity to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and bring it… back home [to] Earth where it belongs”.  

According to Hardie “one of the biggest questions in forestry for the next 100 years is going to continue to be: how can we optimize forest care for maximum carbon drawdown and for climate resilience?”  Which leads to the crux of a well-executed, carbon project in the climate change era: adaptability and resilience. We need strategies that keep ecosystems thriving as the climate changes around them. As Hardie puts it: “The resilience of the forest is so critical to the forest’s ability to stabilize the climate. So we need to protect forests adaptively so they can continue to protect us.”

Robert Seaton and Dirk Brinkman, both of Brinkman Earth Systems, stressed that the best way to do this is to approach projects with an ecology-first perspective following Indigenous leadership. Under the extractive regimes that have dominated Canada’s economy since colonization, forests and other landscapes have lost diversity, heterogeneity, and resiliency. The timber-centric regimes that forcibly replaced Indigenous management, have made much of the country’s forests susceptible to disease, pest-infestation, and fire. As Adam Olson, Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, put it “make no mistake, we are doing today what James Douglas brought with him on that boat: to hew wood and draw water on behalf of the Crown… to the benefit of the Crown”. As such, rather than following the resource-centric model that has led us to biodiversity and climate crisis, we must pursue conservation and stewardship projects with carbon capture as an outcome, and a means to an end rather than as the primary goal.

Ultimately, nature-based solutions like carbon projects are not going to save us from catastrophic climate change. As Dr. Bonnie Waring puts it “viewing natural ecosystems as “climate solutions” gives the misleading impression that forests can function like an infinitely absorbent mop to clean up the ever increasing flood of human caused CO₂ emissions.” But the unfortunate truth is, “there aren’t enough trees to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be.”

There was resounding agreement among workshop presenters that a vital feature of carbon capture projects is that despite their extended lifetime (100+ years), they are a transitory tool; a bridge to help bring us closer to a low-emissions future. These projects are designed to generate revenues to support necessary resilience-building conservation and restoration work. They have the potential to create community capacity to care for, rather than extract from, marine and terrestrial forests. However, as it was put by Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, “we need to act like the climate emergency is an emergency” and pair these projects with aggressive emissions reductions targets to hold to 1.5० in this decade or “all bets are off.” 

Why now? Why here?

Briony Penn, one of the workshop organizers, has been working to improve environmental protections in BC for over 25 years. As a resident of Salt Spring Island, she has a particular interest in implementing strategies to better protect the globally rare and increasingly threatened Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forests and associated ecosystems characteristic to the Gulf Islands and the south-eastern coast of Vancouver Island. Covering a land area of 2,500 km2, with 30% of that extent occurring on the Gulf Islands, nearly all CDF-associated plant communities are considered threatened or endangered due to extensive development within its range. However, these forests have some of the greatest carbon storage capacity and are growing on some of the most productive sites  in the province. 

In 1974, the province created the federation of the Islands Trust for the purpose of “preserving and protecting” the “natural amenities” of the Gulf Islands. The Trust is a nationally unique governance structure and its creation demonstrated the province’s recognition of the need to protect the precious ecosystems found across the islands. However, while commendable in theory, in practice this mandate is largely ineffectual due to the lack of tools provided by the province to allow the Trust to carry it out.  Now, after decades of poor land management choices, forests are fragmented, shorelines eroded, water tables dropping, and trees continue to be cut. As one North Pender Island Local Trustee put it, “We are losing the environmental battle slowly, a death by a thousand cuts.” 

Because the Trust has few regulatory tools to restrict habitat destruction on private lands, it has been an uphill battle for Trustees, local conservancies, and advocates, like Penn,  seeking to implement the preserve and protect mandate in earnest. With experience contributing to implementing carbon projects elsewhere in BC, including the Cheakamus Community Forest, located on Lil’wat and Squamish Territory, Penn sees carbon projects as a tangible pathway toward stronger ecosystem protection and stewardship: “carbon projects are currently the only financial tool we have to implement ecological restoration and conservation in this critical time, apart from donations and very minor tax incentives. While we are waiting for a shift in worldview, we need to have models that demonstrate there are meaningful jobs to be had conserving our sinks and restoring the natural world that bring added benefits for water, climate and health”… and these projects just got a lot more feasible.

Late last year, the federal government released a new Climate Action Plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, which supports the implementation and expansion of nature-based solutions in addition to committing to an annually increasing carbon price over the next 10 years. When federal carbon pricing was first introduced in 2019, the price was set at $20/tonne of CO2 equivalent. After a year hiatus due to the pandemic, that number increased to $40/tonne in early April 2021. It is set to increase to $50/tonne in 2022, and then increase by $15/year until it reaches $170/tonne in 2030. This new carbon pricing structure drastically increases the financial feasibility of new carbon projects in Canada. Further, community-based carbon projects have the potential to fill the gaps left by the recently announced federal budget, which subsidized industry through incentives but fails to tackle the protection and retention of forests and other natural systems. 

 What’s next?

All the pieces are in place to establish efficacious and equitable carbon projects in the Salish Sea: 

  • There are high levels of expertise in this region; 
  • the Coastal Douglas-fir assemblage of ecosystems is one of the most important in the world for carbon sequestration;  
  • civic society is working toward climate solutions;
  • local Indigenous leaders have invaluable intergenerational Ecological Knowledge to inform good long-term ecosystem management; and
  • there is a commitment from the federal government to increase the price of carbon.

The goal of the workshop was to build a civic and Indigenous co-learning community to collaboratively develop a nature-based climate project financed from conservation, restoration and improved forest management (IFM)/improved marine ecosystem management (IMEM). The next step is to mobilize that community to develop a model for how to move this work forward.

In the context of the CDF forests of the Salish Sea, forest-based carbon projects are likely to be aggregate models. That is, due to the high proportion of private land ownership and the small parcel size common to the region, many properties must be bundled together to make a project feasible. According to Satnam Manhas, another expert in forest carbon projects in BC, this sort of model reduces risk and financial barriers, while maximizing carbon sequestration potential. It also means many people must work together for a common purpose.

Once operational, ecosystem-based carbon projects establish a one hundred year forward commitment to the restoration of the land and sea and generate offset sales to the developed colonial economy. These sales from eligible credits for reducing emissions; improving sinks; mitigating risk of pest, fire and drought; protecting endangered species and ecosystems; restoring intertidal and shallow ocean kelp, eel-grass beds; reviving herring etc. are intended to realize some climate equity for Indigenous and restoration-committed rural communities. Indigneous partnership and leadership will be vital to making these projects work. In the words of Daimen Hardie, “The future of conservation is clearly Indigenous led, like it always has been.”

Watch the workshop

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.