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Wetlands and peatlands in Ontario's Far North offer important opportunities to address climate change mitigation and adaptation © Josef MacLeod
Climate change is happening. Fourteen of the first fifteen years of this century have been the warmest on record. Ontario's main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are transportation, industry, buildings, electricity, agriculture, and landfill waste, and the province is among the largest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the world.
While Ontario has made efforts to meet its emission target by phasing out coal, investing in renewable energy, and developing efficiency standards, it is not on track to meet its 2020 target for emissions. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) recently released a discussion paper on climate change to engage with the public, stakeholders, and Indigenous Peoples in order to develop a long-term climate change strategy and action plan.
The 2009 Expert Panel on Climate Change identified Ontario's Far North as important area for the Province to consider to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. The boreal forest, peatlands and wetlands in this region store an immense amount of carbon (33 billion tonnes - nearly 4 years of current global carbon emissions) and absorb an estimated 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. The Expert Panel on Climate Change, Ontario's Far North Science Advisory Panel, and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario recommended that Ontario protect peatlands to limit the release of GHGs and maintain the natural ecosystem functions that benefit us all through climate regulation. The discussion paper acknowledges that the boreal forest and peatlands need to be protected so they do not become a source of emissions if disturbed or removed.
Climate change scenarios predict that the Far North is expected to be one of the most rapidly warming regions both provincially and globally. Remote First Nations communities are already feeling the impacts as the winter roads built to bring in food, fuel and supplies for their communities become less predictable and dangerous. Melting permafrost and changing temperature and precipitation patterns are shifting both the function and structure of the boreal forest, aquatic systems, peatlands, and wetlands, which affects the ability of these systems to regulate climate. Species that have evolved in the Far North such as polar bears, wolverine, and caribou — all species at risk — will have to change their behaviours as their habitats shift. Meanwhile, freshwater fish that rely on coldwater systems will see range reductions and declines due to competition with warmer water species.
WCS Canada has undertaken a number of research efforts to better understand what species like caribou, wolverine and lake trout need in this changing landscape — including large, intact, and specialized habitats. We have brought together scientists, government researchers and First Nations in adaptive planning workshops and have provided support to staff working for First Nations as they plan for climate change.
Moving forward on climate change, Ontario will need to give more attention to what is happening in the Far North. We offer three recommendations for doing so:
1. Valuing peatlands and wetlands for the services they offer all Ontarian's in terms of climate regulation should be a priority for mitigation and adaptation in Ontario's new climate change plan.
2. Land use planning and environmental assessment processes in the Far North need to address regional processes like climate change, carbon sequestration, and protection of peatlands and wetlands. Currently they are piecemeal, do not address cumulative impacts of land use and climate change, and do not protect these systems.
3. The Ring of Fire provides an important opportunity to view new industrial development and transportation planning with a climate change lens. Mines in remote regions like Ontario's Far North will add more GHGs to Ontario's carbon budget and will also require an unprecedented amount of new infrastructure and transportation to create viable mining operations. While Ontario has committed $1 billion for new infrastructure for accessing the Ring of Fire, it lacks any plan for addressing the safety and liability risks associated with new infrastructure under predicted climate change scenarios.
Learn more about this issue:
Read Ontario's discussion paper on climate change
Comment on Ontario's Climate Change Discussion Paper
Our report on the necessity for a more strategic and environmental approach to environmental planning in the Far North
Dr. Cori Lausen and a bat team have headed to the the Flathead River valley in southeastern British Columbia for a four-day BioBlitz in attempt to find out more information.