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The Narwhal | News

May 26, 2023 | Ainslie Cruickshank

Five months after COP15, governments in Canada agree to work together to protect the country’s lands and waters, but progress is slow

Clear cut logging across B.C. has put at risk species, including northern spotted owls and southern mountain caribou, in further jeopardy. Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal

Five months after Canada and 195 other countries inked a new agreement to save nature, most provinces and territories have agreed to collaborate on a new national biodiversity strategy, the federal government announced Friday.

In an interview with The Narwhal earlier this week, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said he is confident Canada will achieve its goal of conserving 30 per cent of marine areas. But Guilbeault warned meeting the country’s global commitment to conserve 30 per cent of lands and freshwater could be difficult without buy-in from all the provinces and territories.

“As challenging as it was to broker this agreement in Montreal, domestic implementation is where the rubber hits the road,” Guilbeault said at a press conference Friday.

“I’m very happy to report we’re all on the same page in recognizing the critical importance of protecting nature and the COP15 objectives,” he said.

At COP15, an international nature conference held in December in Montreal, countries agreed to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which lays out 23 targets to halt and ultimately reverse biodiversity decline. Though the federal government pledged to reach those targets, achieving them requires collaborative efforts from all levels of government.

Alberta, which is in the midst of a provincial election campaign, did not participate in the meetings. Quebec, which is developing its own nature strategy in response to the global biodiversity agreement, participated as an observer.

Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Steven Guilbeault said he’s confident Canada will meet its target to conserve 30 per cent of land and water by 2030, but collaboration with provinces and territories and Indigenous leadership are key to success. Photo: Selena Phillips-Boyle / The Narwhal

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society welcomed the announcement.

“It’s taken a long time for governments to agree on the urgency, and today we’re relieved to finally mark the starting point of a pan-Canadian approach to collaborating in the work to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in Canada,” Sandra Schwartz, the organization’s national executive director, said in a statement.

The language in the government’s press release is vague. It notes governments have reaffirmed their commitment “to collaborating on shared objectives for the conservation and sustainable use of Canada’s biodiversity, in accordance with each government’s priorities and jurisdiction.”

A key challenge for many governments is competing objectives to protect biodiversity and expand industries that are harmful to nature.

Just this week, a coalition of environmental organizations launched a legal challenge over the approval of the controversial Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project in B.C. The project will destroy a piece of the Fraser River estuary, a biodiversity hotspot that is home to more than 100 at-risk species.

Lucero Gonzalez, a biodiversity campaigner with the Georgia Strait Alliance, one of the organizations behind the legal challenge, said there’s a “sense that Canada is really just waiting until the last possible moment to protect biodiversity and achieve its promised targets.”

“But by the time they do it, it might already be too late,” she warned in an interview.

What’s at stake for biodiversity in Canada

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any other point in human history. One million species are already at risk of extinction, according to a landmark global assessment published in 2019. Canada isn’t immune. One in five wild species in Canada are at risk of disappearing; some are already gone.

What happens in Canada over the next several years will have global implications. According to a federal discussion paper, 94 per cent of the world’s remaining wilderness areas are found in just 20 countries, with Canada responsible for the second largest area.

The Vancouver Island marmot is one of more than 100 species at risk of extinction in Canada that exist nowhere else in the world. Photo: Frank Fichtmueller / Shutterstock

In addition to buy-in from the provinces and territories, Guilbeault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have repeatedly acknowledged Indigenous leadership is crucial for advancing conservation and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples

“The most important thing that governments can do is support, recognize and fully resource Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship, including [Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas] and Guardians programs,” Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, said in an email.

“Every day I see examples of how Indigenous nations are offering solutions to the challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity,” she said. “That’s the best and perhaps only path by which Canada can achieve its target of protecting 30 per cent of lands and waters by 2030.”

Indigenous nations advancing conservation, but more support needed

In December, the federal government announced $800 million over seven years to support some Indigenous-led conservation efforts. While it was encouraging to see a major funding announcement, “more is needed, especially at a regional scale,” according to Gillian Staveley, director of culture and land stewardship at the Dena Kayeh Institute, a non-profit focused on establishing a Kaska Dena Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area called Dene K’éh Kusān.

“As much as I hate to say it, time is one of our biggest challenges,” Staveley said in an email. “We need to move faster to match the urgency of the crisis we face in our country.”

This work is about more than averting the biodiversity and climate crises, Staveley added. “It also is about the ongoing stewardship of the land and water, and that is why we need supporting investments to strengthen our communities to build nationhood and to ensure that people on the ground are supported to do the work,” she said.

“We have been developing a relationship with the land and to each other for millennia, and we know how to keep the land healthy.”

The Kaska Dena have proposed a large Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, or IPCA, called Dene K’éh Kusān, which would help protect vital northern mountain caribou habitat. Photo: Jeremy Koreski / The Narwhal

Staveley, who recently attended the First Nations National Guardians Gathering in Ottawa, said she is still feeling inspired by the stories she heard there.

“The land Guardian initiatives across Canada are one of the few ways we can simultaneously address climate change, loss of biodiversity, and reconciliation,” she said.

B.C. minister calls modern watershed, land-use planning ‘greatest hope’ for biodiversity but warns of capacity challenges

In an interview with The Narwhal, B.C.’s Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen said the province views Indigenous-led conservation as the way forward on both conservation and reconciliation, calling it “a sea change” from the approach taken in even the last five or 10 years.

B.C. has committed to protecting 30 per cent of land and waters by 2030 but progress has been slow. Cullen said a lot of “foundational” work is underway, including government-to-government negotiations with First Nations in several areas on modern land use plans and for a tripartite nature agreement among B.C., First Nations and the federal government.

The “greatest hope” for biodiversity is better planning at a watershed or landscape level, he said.

“The mistake that has been made in the past is going project by project, permit by permit, sometimes species by species,” Cullen said.

He said the B.C. government’s ability to meet the demand for better land-use planning across the province is challenged by a lack of capacity.

“We’re getting calls and serious discussions from all corners of the province,” he said. Finding enough people to sit at many different discussion tables is a challenge, he said.

Gillian Staveley, director of culture and land stewardship at the Dena Kayeh Institute, says more support is needed for Indigenous-led conservation on the ground. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

As discussions continue, the province is regularly making decisions around mining, logging, oil and gas and other developments, often with major implications for biodiversity. Significant gaps in B.C.’s laws and regulations — including the lack of a stand-alone law to protect at-risk species – continue to put wildlife and biodiversity in further jeopardy.

So far, B.C. has conserved 19.6 per cent of land in the province through protected areas and other mechanisms.

A report published May 24 by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society pointed to the Dene K’éh Kusān IPCA as a key conservation opportunity in B.C.

“We have high hopes for the co-governance of this region, and we know that governments see the value in working together to protect and safeguard more land and waters to meet our collective stewardship goals,” she said.

Cullen seemed similarly optimistic. Though the minister said there’s still a lot of work ahead, he said he’s “feeling incredibly encouraged.”

Approving Roberts Bank terminal expansion was a ‘difficult decision,’ Guilbeault says

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society report found a mixed bag of progress on conservation across the country. Some provinces, including B.C. which scored a C in 2021, have made “significant progress” on conservation since the previous report card. Progress was minimal in others, including in Ontario and Alberta.

So far, 13.6 per cent of land and freshwater and 14.7 per cent of marine areas have been conserved across the country.

“We are taking this seriously,” Guilbeault said in an interview this week. “I sense that there are a lot more people out there who believe we are trying to make a difference when it comes to nature.”

The federal government has committed more than $8 billion towards conservation, including $3.2 billion for tree planting, $1.4 billion to conserve and restore wetlands, $800 million in Indigenous-led initiatives and almost $1 billion to protect marine areas. On Friday, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray announced $36.6 million over the next five years to fight aquatic invasive species, including funding to address the spread of European green crabs in B.C.

Invasive species, including European green crabs which are spreading up the coast of B.C., are a major threat to biodiversity worldwide. Photos: Melissa Renwick / The Narwhal

In addition to developing a strategy to meet the 2030 targets, Guilbeault has committed to tabling biodiversity accountability legislation by early 2024 at the latest.

He pointed to the federal climate accountability legislation, which requires the government to report on its progress towards emissions reductions targets.

“What is true of climate is as true of our nature targets — we need a similar type of imposed discipline on governments, really, ours and those that will follow afterwards,” Guilbeault said.

Gonzalez, with the Georgia Strait Alliance, said she’d like to see the accountability act include a mechanism to allow the public to take legal action against the government if it fails to meet its biodiversity goals.

Gonzalez called the Roberts Bank project a step backwards for biodiversity conservation.

The global biodiversity agreement wasn’t just about “slowing down biodiversity loss,” she said. “They signed an agreement to halt, completely halt biodiversity loss and start working towards restoring that lost biodiversity.”

The request for judicial review hinges on the argument that a project can’t be justified under environmental assessment legislation if it contravenes the Species at Risk Act, she said.

Guilbeault said approving the terminal expansion was a “difficult decision.”

“Every project we approve has impacts,” he said, including transit projects and solar farms. “If that’s the stick by which our action is measured then we can never win.”

Guilbeault said the new impact assessment process attempts to better balance impacts with economic development.

“That tension is always going to be there, we can’t escape it,” he said.

Restoring biodiversity requires more than ‘tinkering around the edges’

Justina Ray, president and senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, said the agreements made in the global biodiversity framework represent “transformational change.”

“We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges, we’re talking about doing things quite differently,” she said.

As Canada develops its new biodiversity strategy, she doesn’t want to see the targets “get cherry picked.”

“It could be very tempting to say ‘okay, well we’ll take a few of them and see how far we get,’ but many of them interact together,” she said.

Guilbeault said there is “some urgency” to protect more lands and waters, because it also reduces the amount of restoration work needed later.

But that doesn’t mean the government is setting the other targets aside. Public consultations launched earlier this month will address them all, he said.

The initial public consultation runs until July 14.