As Ontario plans to open carbon-dense peatland regions for mining despite opposition from several Indigenous communities, a new study makes a case for conserving the carbon stocks in Canada’s soils.
The province’s actions include proposed legislative changes that would “clear hurdles” to developing part of the region for mining activity, CBC reports.
“Canada has a tremendous responsibility globally in terms of stewarding and protecting that ecosystem carbon,” said James Snider, head of the science, knowledge and innovation team at World Wildlife Fund Canada, which carried out the study in partnership with McMaster University.
The researchers found that Canada’s terrestrial ecosystems store 384 billions tonnes of soil carbon, or a quarter of the world’s total. Decaying plant and organic matter and microorganisms have been depositing carbon into the soil, and peatland areas in particular—like the boggy wetlands of northern Ontario and parts of Manitoba—are a valuable resource for keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
Ecosystem carbon storage “can be a critical pathway to getting to a 1.5°C future, making sure that carbon is not emitted into the atmosphere and, in turn, trying to grow the amount of carbon we’re storing in these terrestrial ecosystems,” Snider said.
The researchers note that these ecosystems are at severe risk because Canada is warming at twice the average global rate. They call for continued research and conservation to protect this critical carbon-sink. An interactive map from the team allows readers to identify the carbon-rich areas in Canada that are most in need of protection.
But Canada’s soils face several threats that could release this carbon. Accelerated global warming, for instance, could release carbon stores in the Arctic by melting permafrost. Carbon stores could also be compromised by human activities like mechanized farming, oil and gas exploration, and mining, says CBC.
Several First Nation communities are located in and around the James Bay region of northern Ontario, where some of the most carbon-rich soils are found. The region also contains the “Ring of Fire” area 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, which contains valuable deposits of chromite, a component of steel, along with minerals used in electric vehicle batteries like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, CBC writes.
The Ontario government is eyeing this area for mining as part of its strategy to make the province a hub for EV manufacturing, CBC notes. While Ford says First Nations are being consulted about Ring of Fire development, and maintains the uptick in mining activity will benefit people in the region, several Indigenous communities are opposed to the work.
“I don’t think First Nations, whose land this has always been and still is solely, appreciate anybody else telling them what’s good for them,” said Kate Kempton, a partner with the law firm Olthius Kleer Townshend LLP who represents the Attawapiskat First Nation as part of a court challenge to the province’s exploration agreement with the mining firm Juno Corporation. Kempton told CBC the company’s “so-called consultation” with the Attawapiskat was an email to the community’s land and resources coordinator in January 2020.
Meanwhile, the Ford government is proposing legislative changes to the 2010 Far North Act that would “clear hurdles to developing the Ring of Fire,” says CBC.
The original legislation requires protections for areas of cultural value and ecological systems in the northern part of the province by giving 225,000 square kilometres protected area status; the new language would only require protecting those areas “by various means.”
Another provision alters Indigenous participation in land use planning , making it more difficult for First Nations to form a joint body for engaging in land use planning. In the 2010 Act, a joint body can be created at the request of “any First Nation having one or more reserves in the Far North”; the proposed changes would instead require “seven or more First Nations” to indicate interest in establishing a joint body.