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Expert panel

Professor joins national team examining carbon sinks and curbing climate change


By Kelly Foss

An earth sciences professor has joined an expert panel working towards determining if and how ecological carbon sinks can help Canada meet its greenhouse gas emission commitments.

It’s required work in the international effort to curb ongoing climate change.

Dr. Sue Ziegler
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

At the request of Environment and Climate Change Canada and six other federal departments and agencies, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is charged with providing an assessment on Understanding and Leveraging Canadian Carbon Sinks.

Complex environmental systems

The CCA formed the panel, which includes Dr. Sue Ziegler, to examine the potential for enhancing carbon storage in natural systems such as plants, soils, and aquatic and coastal marine environments to support climate change mitigation efforts in Canada.

“We know ecological carbon sinks, such as forests and wetlands, are vital to maintaining Earth’s carbon balance, but these are complex environmental systems that both absorb and release greenhouse gases depending on many factors,” said panel chair Dr. Glen MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Essentially, we are reviewing what is known to date regarding natural climate solutions that could impact the country’s ability to reach the 2050 target of net neutral emissions,” Dr. Ziegler said.

Dr. Sue Ziegler stands in a forest with her hand resting on a tree.
Dr. Sue Ziegler in the field.
Photo: Submitted

“We’re reviewing all the data specific to Canada and accessing information from other parts of the world, where relevant, looking at key uncertainties, implications and benefits or risks of implementing natural-based solutions focused on enhancing carbon sequestration in managed and unmanaged ecosystems. We’re also looking at management processes, implementation of management, what effect they may have on greenhouse gas emissions and if they are feasible.”

Critical gaps

Dr. Ziegler says while great research has been done, the panel’s synthesis is meant to reveal critical gaps and how best to monitor mitigation efforts, if and how carbon sinks or solutions can be sustained past 2050 and future strategic priorities for science and monitoring carbon sink behaviour in Canada.

“We can, for example, speak to certain types of monitoring that would be important for recording and understanding carbon sinks. What we don’t measure we don’t know and cannot reconcile in terms of uptake or release of greenhouse gases.”

The multidisciplinary group’s members are from universities and organizations across the country and have expertise in carbon cycle science, earth sciences, climate and carbon modelling, geography, natural resource management, land-use planning, economics and public policy.

Dr. Ziegler brings her expertise in forest ecosystems to the panel, but says she is also able to weigh in on the wetland and aquatic ecosystems.

“I think I was asked to join because of the collaborative work I’ve been doing in this province over the past 10 years to understand how forest landscapes as a whole are responding to climate change,” she said.

“We can protect certain types of ecosystems and make good choices about our future actions in agriculture, forestry and mining.” — Dr. Sue Ziegler

“Taking clues from boreal landscapes and precipitation trends, we are now investigating the lateral transport of nutrients and carbon into, and its impact on, the aquatic environment. There are many connections between rivers and coastal environments in this province and there are important shifts in organic matter and nutrient delivery from the terrestrial environment into waterways that can have impacts on our aquatic and coastal resources.”

From a sink to a source

She says Canada has wonderful and vast natural systems that act as sinks for the global community and, because of them, we’ve enjoyed a huge “discount” on our emissions into the atmosphere.

“Unfortunately, recent evidence has shown that some of these are no longer able to provide that discount to our emissions,” said Dr. Ziegler. “The boreal forest in Canada overall, and particularly in British Columbia and Alberta, has switched from being a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide to being a source on a global scale.”

Dr. Ziegler’s PhD student Helia Kamel is studying how forest catchment hydrology and carbon and nutrient export varies with climate.
Photo: Submitted

Climate emergency

Dr. Ziegler says Canada needs to be aware of and take care of our carbon sinks and ameliorate the changes that are already underway in response to climate warming.

“It’s an emergency, and often we don’t talk about it that way, but we need to,” she said. “However, we can protect certain types of ecosystems and make good choices about our future actions in agriculture, forestry and mining to complement the required emission reductions.

“Information is really important for making those decisions at the end of the day. It’s positive that government is interested, as shown by the commissioning of this report.”

The panel has nearly finished its review and its conclusions are expected to go for an independent peer-review later this summer. A final report will go to government before eventually being released to the public.

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