How the Boreal Forest Can Help Protect Birds from Climate Change

Nature-based climate solutions can deliver one third of the emission reductions needed to meet the Paris Climate Agreement.

When it comes to fighting climate change, the most important step we can take is to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon we release. But we also have to absorb the carbon already in the atmosphere. Engineers like to tout new-fangled contraptions to take carbon from the air including complex cement-like products that pull in carbon-dioxide and trap it.

But what would you say if we had an even better contraption? One that doesn’t require any manufacturing, is readily available to virtually anyone at little or no cost, and one that simultaneously generates oxygen and other products that we can use?

Sounds too good to be true?

It’s not. We are talking about trees and other plants of course!

Making it all even more appealing is the fact that by maintaining and restoring ecosystems full of plants, we get the best bargain of all. Not only do we get the benefit of carbon being pulled from the air, but we gain the co-benefit of protecting or enhancing habitat that provides for birds and other wildlife that we love.

Scientists say this approach—often called nature-based climate solutions—can deliver one third of the emission reductions needed to meet the Paris Climate Agreement. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by climate change, nature-based climate solutions offer a clear path forward. We can attack climate change and help declining populations of birds and other wildlife to recover at the same time.

That’s why it’s so important for governments to actively support the nature-based climate solutions that protect intact ecosystems for both their carbon storage benefits and their biodiversity benefits.

What a perfect win-win for government and for all of us!

One of the biggest opportunities to advance nature-based climate solutions is the boreal forest in Canada. It holds about 12 percent of the world’s land-based carbon reserves—the equivalent of up to 36 years of global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Protecting the boreal’s intact forest, peatland and wetland landscapes will keep this carbon safely stored away.

Many Indigenous governments and communities across the boreal region are sustaining these carbon storehouses by establishing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. These areas harbor enormous quantities of carbon. They also harbor vast forests and peatlands that pull more carbon out of our carbon-polluted atmosphere. These are the same forests that serve as the summer nesting areas for literally billions of the world’s most beloved birds.

In fact, between one and three billion birds of nearly 400 species are estimated to nest each year in the Boreal Forest region which stretches from Alaska, the Yukon and BC in the west to Newfoundland and Labrador in the east. Species like the Blackpoll Warbler, that sings its high-pitched squeaky-brake song from scrubby spruce trees across the Boreal from Alaska to Newfoundland and makes an immense journey to South America for the winter. Or the Canada Jay, a non-migratory year-round resident of the Boreal Forest a species with a long history of interacting with Indigenous people as it searched for food around campsites and animal kills.

Rich boreal wetlands also attract migratory birds. The Bufflehead, for instance, is a tiny, boldly patterned black and white duck that nests in old woodpecker holes around the millions of lakes and ponds that dot the boreal forest and becomes one of the most familiar winter waterfowl of calm, coastal bays along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. Palm Warblers, Swamp Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, American Black Ducks and Solitary Sandpipers are just a few of the many other birds that nest in those boreal wetlands.

We can sustain these bird habitats—and the carbon storage they provide—by supporting nature-based climate solutions. That means we should look to new large-scale funding for green recovery, climate mitigation, coastal resilience, and watershed protection to include significant funding for Indigenous governments and communities working to develop Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Indigenous Guardians programs. No longer should nature-based climate solutions be receiving only the dribs and drabs of small-scale funding if we are to take on the tasks of lowering climate risks while simultaneously bringing back populations of birds and other wildlife.

It’s time to stop being paralyzed by climate change and its consequences and to start enacting smart win-win solutions, like those of establishing Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Indigenous Guardians programs, at the scale we need to get the job done. The birds we love can’t do it themselves, but we can!

This piece was also featured as part of a series highlighting climate threats to the Pacific Flyway in August 2021.