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Simple act of planting trees is part of the fight against climate change

We’re increasingly aware of the pivotal role trees play in our environment, particularly the urban areas.

The township is in the midst of efforts to increase its tree cover – including the so-called urban canopy – and there are regional, provincial and federal efforts to boost the planting of trees.

Ottawa, in fact, has a “two billion trees” program underway, with the target right in the name. Planting that many trees represents a 40-per-cent increase in the number of trees that would typically be planted over a decade, and will see trees planted in both urban and rural areas across the country.  In 10 years, the new trees will cover the equivalent of over 1.1 million hectares, an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island.

To reach that goal, the government has committed up to $3.2 billion over 10 years, starting in 2021–22.

The feds say the plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 12 megatonnes annually by 2050, and create up to 4,300 green jobs.

Given the increasingly extreme weather we’re experiencing, it’s little wonder that issues of climate change have permeated the public consciousness, especially in the run-up to a federal election. Daily news accounts of wildfires wreaking havoc on forests in this country, the U.S. and elsewhere make us mindful of our forested areas.

In such instances, climate change becomes an issue not only for environmental groups, but industry organizations as well.

The likes of Rob Keen, CEO of Forest Recovery Canada and Forests Ontario, argues for tree planting to help cool the planet.

“Our forests and urban trees solve many problems. Record high temperatures have sparked heat warnings in Montreal; trees provide shade, cooling neighbourhoods by 5˚C. When we plant trees, we turn scorched lands into healthy forests. Trees absorb water, helping to prevent floods. Forests filter and purify the water we drink. And of course, forests sequester the carbon that we’ve released into the atmosphere that is dangerously warming our Earth,” he writes in a recent opinion piece.

“The organizations I lead, Forest Recovery Canada and Forests Ontario, know how to grow new forests. We have planted nearly as many trees as there are Canadians – more than 36 million trees so far. A recent study by Natural Resources Canada shows that over 50 years, the trees we have planted will sequester the equivalent of the carbon emitted by a million cars driving from Montreal to Vancouver – and back.”

Keen notes that the main cause of today’s wildfires, noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August leaves no room for debate on why the Earth is warming. Tree-planting programs are a way to help counter the effects.

“Canadians are good at planting trees. Ours is the rare organization that fully integrates all the components of tree planting. We carefully select and gather the best seeds of native trees, grow seedlings, then plant the right tree in the right spot, and keep track of new forests’ progress with the precision of an accountant. We work to put the right trees in the ground with First Nations, private landowners, non-profits, volunteers, governments and the corporate sector,” he says.

Each of us, in fact, can help in a small way, from planting a tree on our properties to helping with the community-led initiatives to improve the local green infrastructure.

Our urban areas are losing trees at a time when they are more important than ever. The emerald ash borer, an invasive pest that’s no stranger to this neck of the woods, is killing millions of ash trees in backyards, along streets and in parks across the province. Climate change is resulting in more extreme weather events – including storms, heat waves and droughts – that can devastate urban trees. Combined with increasingly difficult growing conditions, such as reduced soil volumes that come with urban densification, these stresses are wreaking havoc on our urban forests.

Now would be a fine time for governments at all levels to take action on the many disparate attempts to bolster the tree count in our urban areas, home to more than 80 per cent of us these days.

That’s especially true given the loss of land, including urban forests, to development. Such projects turn treed areas into various combinations of concrete, asphalt, glass and bricks. It’s doing the same, of course, to farmland, which also lent mightily to the historical deforestation that afflicts even rural areas like Woolwich and Wellesley townships.

Development is ever a threat to existing tree cover. When you throw in sudden losses through the likes of ice storms, invasive species and even wildfires, then we quickly get into more trouble.

Things are changing so quickly, that advocates and government agencies are having a hard time keeping up.

Aside from the aesthetic value, such losses have a real impact on the quality of life in our communities, not to mention a real economic cost.

On the strictly pragmatic front, for instance, trees reduce storm-water runoff, acting as sponges that keep water onsite and recharge the groundwater: a typical urban forest of 10,000 trees will retain 10 million gallons of rainwater per year, says the U.S. Forest Service. In doing so, the trees help reduce the amount of runoff and pollutants into water courses such as rivers and creeks. While manmade drainage systems such as sewers and storm drains accelerate the flow of polluted water through community, trees slow it down and clean the water.

As we know from heightened awareness of climate change, trees play a big role in sequestering carbon dioxide, while also capturing and storing air pollutants of all kinds. That provides both short- and long-term benefits to air quality.

With the last long weekend of summer rolling in, we’ll be even more aware of the shade provided by trees. Not just a convenient place to relax and read a book, the shading writ large of buildings and pavement reduces the demand for air conditioning and the formation of ozone – 30 per cent of the energy used for air conditioning could be saved by providing more shade.

Trees are certainly good for our well-being.

Urban forests strengthen the urban core by improving public social space and the walking experience, bringing a more natural setting to our increasingly compact development. They serve to divide various uses and buffer noise, encouraging mixed-use communities that improve the places we live and boost the economy.

We know instinctively that trees greatly enhance our communities. On the residential front, think about the most desirable neighbourhoods: they tend to be those with a nice canopy of mature trees intertwined over the roadways. (That the homes tend to be much nicer than the cookie-cutter suburbs inflicted on us these days is another factor.)

Still, it’s a losing battle to ensure mature trees are retained when new subdivisions go in, and even difficult to see urban forests incorporated into new developments.

While places like Woolwich call for tree planting as part of new building projects, the trees are often treated as something of an afterthought. Poor, scarce soil is not an ideal start for the saplings, with neglect not helping them in a hostile environment.

Urban trees exist in an inherently difficult environment. The lack of growing space above and below ground, contaminated and compacted soils, de-icing salt, and the physical damage caused by trenching, mowers, snow removal activities and cars, are but a few of the factors that prevent most urban trees from reaching their genetic potential.

Like so many things, however, trees are easy victims of the short-term thinking that’s the bailiwick of politicians. Considerable pressure will be needed to convince them to gain some proper perspective.

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