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Turns out that wasn't the tweet
Planting two billion trees is hard. So is owning up
How was your long weekend, for those celebrating? How was your blissful escape from thinking about the complexities of life? Cherish the memory, because we’re back. Today’s story seems at first to be about trees, but soon enough it becomes a story about our familiar national plight.
Return with us now to the thrilling days of 2019, when Justin Trudeau found himself in tough for re-election against Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. Suddenly Greta Thunberg, the teenaged Swedish climate activist, was in Canada. Thunberg is disappointed with all governments, and suddenly she was in Canada, expressing disappointment with Trudeau’s.
This was precisely the sort of thing that could demotivate Liberal supporters who voted on green issues. Action was needed. The Liberal leader met with Thunberg and tweeted something bold and with-it:
“That’s it. That’s the tweet” was a phrase the cool kids, and those working hard to join them, were putting in their tweets that year for emphasis. Quizzed by campaign reporters, the Liberals emphasized that the 2 billion trees would be new trees, on top of Canada’s already-formidable tree stock and on top of any pre-existing tree-planting program. Trees use atmospheric carbon dioxide to turn sunlight and water into sugar; in most circumstances they’re natural carbon sinks. Here was a party that could Think Big and Work Hard to Leave No Stone Unturned for a Fairer, Greener Future.
Hijinks ensued. A year after Trudeau’s pledge, Mélanie Marquis reported in La Presse that the number of trees planted so far under new federal programs was, well, zero. Within several weeks, officials were admitting they had received no financing for any tree-planting effort.
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On Twitter Liberal supporters protested, reasonably, that by autumn of 2020 there was a global plague to worry about. And despite that real obstacle, in December the natural-resources minister, Seamus O’Regan, announced a plan to get to 2 billion trees by 2030. The plan called for very small numbers of incremental tree plantings in the early years, growing to rapid progress near the end of the decade, for reasons having to do with tree life cycles and with the complexities of federalism.
Skip forward. In April of this year, Jerry DeMarco, the federal Environment Commissioner, said the Trudeau government’s early performance was falling well short of even those relatively modest targets. If nothing changed, its final result would be pitiful, not even 4% of the 2-billion-tree target.
Fast forward to last Wednesday, Aug. 2, a date that will go down in the annals of relatively interesting days in Canadian politics, although perhaps not for the following reason: last Wednesday afternoon, O’Regan’s successor Jonathan Wilkinson announced that now the Trudeau government was exceeding its planting targets!
BOOM! THAT’S THE TWEET, OR XEET, OR WHATEVER WE’RE CALLING THEM THESE DAYS! EAT IT, JERRY DEMARCO!
This triumphant announcement was reported pretty much as great news in most of the country’s news outlets. Here I intend no criticism of my friends in the older news organizations: they were having a busy day.
This is because according to my email inbox, the announcement from Wilkinson arrived about an hour after Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau announced their separation.
What an unfortunate and, I’m sure, wholly unintended collision between a hugely distracting human-interest drama with excellent photo possibilities and a policy story that contains a lot of numbers and weird program names!
In fact, as far as I can see only one reporter in the country caught the feds mis-reporting their numbers.
That reporter was Boris Proulx at Le Devoir. And since he reported in French, during what much of the country celebrates as a holiday weekend, hard on the heels of one of the wildest celebrity-politics weeks in recent Canadian history, his efforts might be in danger of being overlooked. Fortunately I have a newsletter.
Boris is a tenacious guy, very much in his paper’s best tradition. In April he covered Jerry DeMarco’s gloomy report on the tree-planting program. Three weeks ago, in July, he wrote again to note that the government had provided no update on its progress for 2022, at least a month after Natural Resources had said such an update should normally be expected. That second “I’m still waiting” story is the sort of thing reporters sometimes have to produce when they’re being stonewalled. Its purpose is to let officials know they’re not fooling anyone and their tormentor isn’t going anywhere.
Then came Wednesday’s announcement. Here’s what Proulx reported on Friday evening for Saturday’s front page: “In the midst of its third planting season, the federal government modified its calculation of planted trees to claim that it is well on track to fulfill its promise of planting two billion trees in the decade, by adding data from a completely different program.”
In fact, though the feds were claiming 110 million trees have been planted through the 2022 season, the real number under the “2 Billion Trees” program could not be higher than 56 million, Proulx wrote.
How did the feds get to the bigger number?
“To conclude that it had surpassed its target, Natural Resources added 54 million trees — 49% of the total — planted under a different program operated by another department, the Low-Carbon Economy Fund. This program predates the promise of 2 billion trees. Its sudden inclusion in the tree-planting total puzzles the Environment Commissioner.”
Here’s the website for Environment Canada’s Low-Carbon Economy Fund, with news releases going back to 2017. And here’s a federal news release from December 2020 that draws a distinction between the new 2 Billion Trees program and existing programs, including the Low-Carbon Economy Fund. In other words, here’s what we’re already doing, and here’s this new program we’re launching now. That distinction no longer exists, according to the feds, as of last week.
The new program Wilkinson runs still hasn’t signed agreements with Quebec and Ontario, the two largest provinces, for tree-planting services. The 2 Billion Trees program doesn’t operate without partners, because planting trees isn’t free and the feds don’t cover the entire cost. That lack of partners is a big part of the problem DeMarco identified. Shovelling in numbers from another program, without explanation, seems designed mostly to rebut DeMarco’s analysis. And dumping the claim of progress an hour after the PM’s relationship news will have the effect of ensuring that very few observers notice the transparent program graft.
Beyond that, there’s room for some serious grownup discussion — in some imaginary country that isn’t inhabited by the current crop of party leaders — about the utility of a tree-planting program in a country that (a) has a lot of trees; (b) has a lot of tree-planting; (c ) has limited nursery space for any incremental tree-planting; and (d), crucially, just went through a surreal hell-summer of forest fires, which release massive quantities of carbon and pose serious questions about the forest ecosystem’s long-term sustainability.
Note that I’m not arguing, and would not argue, that the answer to the summer we’ve just come through isn’t “do nothing.” But it might well be “Consider doing something else, and at a minimum, think out loud instead of dumping massaged numbers on take-out-the-trash day.”
In the real world, newly-planted pine trees in the tundra are darker than the flora they replace, reflect less light and tend to heat instead of cooling their surroundings. That limits their short-term utility. In the real world, emission effects for 2040 can’t be banked if we have no real idea what will happen to forests between now and then. In the real world, numbers from governments need to be reliable if the consent of the governed is to have any meaning.
I know the rebuttal: In the real world, a governing party that wants to do something about a problem it believes in is better than one that wants to do nothing about a problem it denies. Ooh, Paul, you’re complaining about a government that has so many tree-planting programs it sometimes mixes them up! Of course I can’t do much to dissuade readers from that kind of defensive thinking. As I often note here, each of our largest parties is forever its rival’s handiest excuse.
But we’re less than two weeks past a cabinet shuffle that was marketed as the work of a government fielding its best players for a new era of government. And now we see one of its most serious ministers fronting a little creative accounting rather than tell Canadians what’s really going on in an important program.
Newsroom budgets and staffing being what they are, it’s hard to be surprised that Team Trudeau tried to pull a fast one. It almost worked. They would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for that meddling kid at Le Devoir.