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The 20 people who can

The 20 people who matter most don’t know it yet. They have the power, but don’t see the problem. Let’s set the scene.
David Robinson Economist, Laurentian University Director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development.

The 20 people who matter most don’t know it yet. They have the power, but don’t see the problem. Let’s set the scene.

In 2009, three Canadian scientists wrote that the boreal forests and peat bogs store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on earth — twice as much per area as tropical forests, for example.

With the Hudson’s Bay lowlands, Ontario’s share of the world’s boreal carbon translates to more than 40 billion tons.

Climate models promise a drier, less productive forest across Northern Ontario. Climate zones are shifting 10 times faster than natural forests can move. A recent paper in Science magazine claims “large regions of the boreal forests could, by the end of the century, shift to the drier climate space normally occupied by the woodland/shrubland biome.”

The reality says that at least part of northwestern Ontario’s boreal will turn into grassland with shrubs and small trees. No need for sawmills north of Thunder Bay. Invest in Buffalo.

By the turn of the next century there will probably be a band of mixed grassland from Kenora to James Bay. Bogs will have dried and forests will have burned. My estimate is that as much as 10 per cent of Northern Ontario’s boreal carbon could be released as CO2 by mid-century.

Kathryn McGarry, the minister of natural resources and forestry, is the head of the business that will be emitting huge amounts of CO2. Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised to charge big emitters in Ontario.

It is scary to think about how much Queen’s Park could charge McGarry for CO2 permits under Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan.

One tonne of carbon produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2, so we here in Northern Ontario could be about to release more than 14.7 billion tonnes of CO2. That is 1.5 times the total yearly emissions from China.

Assuming the price of a permit for one tonne of CO2 stays at $40 until 2050, and assuming CO2 from the boreal is released at a constant rate, permits would cost us almost $17 billion a year.

This seems like a crazy number, but it is a reasonable ‘order of magnitude’ estimate of the economic damage to the rest of the world that will be caused by climate change in Northern Ontario.

It may be the only estimate. And it doesn’t include the economic losses as mills shut down. We will lose a large fraction of the $5.2 billion that forest exports brought in in 2014. We will pay to fight fires and rebuild towns. Climate change in Northern Ontario is a big deal.

This is where our 20 Northern MPPs and MPs come in.

As a group, they decide if and when we act. They are the ones who have to come up with a Northern climate change policy to minimize the losses we face.

One number they should think about is the value of slowing the carbon losses from the Ontario’s boreal forest by just one year: $9.67 billion.

Where does that number come from?

Imagine postponing a roof replacement for one year. The value of the delay is the interest you can earn on the money you don’t spend for that year.

So, $9.67 billion is the value of postponing 35 years’ worth of emission credits at $17 billion per year.

That means it would make sense to pump almost $10 billion this year into cutting carbon losses from the boreal forest in Northern Ontario.

It would make economic sense to hire 10,000 Northerners to work on preventing carbon losses in the boreal forest.

This is the most important single political project that our 20 political representatives face.

MPs Carol Hughes, Bob Nault, Marc Serré, Anthony Rota, Terry Sheehan, Paul Lefebvre, Don Rusnak, Patty Hajdu and Charlie Angus can launch the process by organizing a briefing with the lead authors of “Boreal forest health and global change,” Sylvie Gauthier and Pierre Bernier, of the Laurentian Forestry Centre in Québec City.

MPPs Gilles Bisson, Sarah Campbell, Vic Fedeli, France Gélinas, Michael Gravelle, Mike Mantha, Bill Mauro, David Orazietti, Glenn Thibeault and John Vanthof — a group that includes four cabinet ministers — can sit down with Kathryn McGarry next week if they want to and commit to creating Ontario’s boreal carbon plan.

They have the power.

Do they understand the problem? Will they act?