New IPCC Report & Indigenous-led Conservation in the Boreal



By Dr. Jeff Wells

August 8, 2019

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Those of us who work on land conservation issues—perhaps especially those of us who work on land conservation in the Boreal Forest region—are pleased to see the newest contribution of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That’s because the new report summarizes the best available knowledge related to how land-use and management worldwide can help in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Released today, the Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Climate Change and Land highlights that ecosystems and natural plant and animal communities are already being greatly impacted by climate change including especially in Boreal Forest and Arctic regions.

Importantly though, the report goes on to point out that actions like the conservation of high-carbon ecosystems can have immediate impacts to help lower emissions of greenhouse gases and increase the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change.

The Boreal Forest is one of the largest land-based storehouse of carbon on the planet with twice as much carbon in its soils, peat and trees per acre as tropical forests. North America’s Boreal Forest holds more than 200 billion tons of carbon, much of it held in the cold storage system of permafrost or in the region’s vast peatlands.

The report’s authors note that all the climate change models that have examined how to limit the increased warming of the planet to less than 2 ℃, include not only lowering industrial emissions but also of changes to land-use including decreasing degradation of forest ecosystems.

An equally important point made in the report is that Indigenous governments and communities are usually among the most effective stewards and managers of the carbon storehouses of lands that are under their management and jurisdiction. And providing resources to those Indigenous governments and communities to take care of those lands and monitor climate change impacts in them can also have major socio-economic benefits to those communities.

That’s why it is exciting to see the leadership of Indigenous governments across Canada’s Boreal and Arctic regions to establish vast new Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas that hold massive stores of carbon within their boundaries. For example, the Moose Cree First Nation in northern Ontario has proposed protecting the one-million-acre North French River watershed that holds an estimate 638 million tons of carbon. In northern Manitoba, the Sayisi Dene First Nation of northern Manitoba is proposing to protect the entire 12-million-acre Seal River Watershed and its more than 667 million tons of carbon. In the Northwest Territories, the Sahtúgot’ine Dene have proposed the conservation of more than 20 million acres of its Great Bear Lake watershed within which is stored a whopping 4.6 billion tons of carbon!  

At the same time as Indigenous governments and communities are leading the way on conservation proposals like these, they are also leading on developing strong corps of Indigenous on-the-ground managers and monitors of their lands. Sometimes called Indigenous Guardians, these programs empower social change and increase economic opportunities in the Indigenous communities where they are located.

It is exciting to see that in Canada’s Boreal Forest region, Indigenous governments are already working hard to do their part to conserve the land and its carbon stores—a vital part of slowing the impacts of climate change as described by the authors of this new IPCC report. We need to find ways to increase support for their efforts, including through more funding directed toward their land conservation and management work.

But we also need to see a similar increased resolve and greatly stepped-up action by all the nations of the world, especially those like the U.S. and China, that are the largest emitters of industrial carbon emissions, to make drastic cuts in those emissions. The IPCC report authors report that delaying action “could result in some irreversible impacts on some ecosystems” and that eventually could increase the pace of global warming. Indigenous governments in Canada are doing what the world needs, but all nations must be part of the solution if we are to avert the looming climate crisis.


 Photo credit: Valerie Courtois