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Ottawa using ‘creative accounting’ on its 2 billion tree pledge, environmental watchdog says

Canada’s environmental watchdog says Ottawa is using “creative accounting” to support the claim that its program to plant two billion trees is exceeding targets.

Commissioner of Environmental and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco told CBC News that Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) is using trees planted under a different program — and a different department — to boost its numbers. 

“It’s creative accounting,” DeMarco told CBC. “It’s certainly within their prerogative to do that.

“But to achieve the benefits for climate, biodiversity and human health, adding trees is needed. Not simply finding trees and other programs that have already been planted and saying, ‘Oh, this now counts, we’ve got a higher number than anyone expected.'”

In August, Natural Resources Canada revised interim numbers on its progress toward the target of planting two billion trees by 2030-31.

By 2022, NRCAN was supposed to have planted 90 million trees. NRCAN says that, to date, it has planted approximately 110 million trees.

The department initially said it had planted 29 million trees in 2021. It now says it planted 83 million trees that year.

The French language website and newspaper Le Devoir first wrote about the change to the way the government reports the number of trees planted.

In a statement, NRCAN said it revised its 2021 figure by adding millions of trees planted through partner programs like Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Low Carbon Economy Fund (LCEF).

“Data from the LCEF program … was received and validated against the two billion tree program’s objectives this summer,” said Keean Nembhard, press secretary for Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

A fir sapling in a forest.
A two-year-old Grand Fir sapling stands about 20 centimetres tall among Douglas-Fir and Western Red Cedar trees at Francis/King Regional Park in Saanich, B.C., Thursday, May 26, 2016 (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

In 2022, the department said it had planted 28 million trees through its partners, missing its interim target for that year of 60 million.

Conservative MP Greg McLean, who sits on the House of Commons environment committee, said the Liberals are being disingenuous with their math.

“Let’s admit to Canadians what this is. This program was a bit of a virtue-signal in the first place,” McLean told CBC.

Wilkinson said in an interview with CBC’s Power and Politics that when the government announced its two billion trees initiative, it confirmed it would rely on other programs.

“I mean, at the end of the day, I am not sure Canadians care if some of the trees come from Low Carbon Economy or some come from other programs,” Wilkinson said. 

Wilkinson said that what Canadians care about is the government achieving the aims behind its program— enhancing biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A man in a suit gestures.
Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson: ‘I am not sure Canadians care if some of the trees come from … other programs.’ (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

But the environmental advocacy organization Nature Canada said that if the government is counting existing trees that were already planted, it cannot claim its two billion tree program is offering any additional value. 

“This, to me, is very disappointing,” said Nature Canada’s reforestation policy and campaign manager David Wallis. “It seems to indicate NRCAN is backing away from its commitment to plant 2 billion additional trees.

“They seem to realize they are not going to hit their target. Instead of coming clean to Canadians and fixing their program, they are choosing to deceive and make it look like they are planting more than they actually are.”   

Ottawa is investing up to $3.2 billion over 10 years (2021-2031) in its tree-planting program.

The government of Canada is planting only some of those trees. Ottawa relies on Indigenous communities, provinces, territories, businesses and non-profit organizations to do most of the planting.

The federal government provides half of the money required to plant trees through cost-sharing agreements. 

The federal government has said it hopes provinces and territories will plant the lion’s share of the trees — 1.35 billion. 

As of March, it had signed agreements with five of 10 provinces and two of three territories to meet the target.

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