Making up for lost ground

CPAWS is working to help Canada meet bold, new targets and uphold its reputation as a global conservation leader.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2021/Winter 2022 issue of Canadian Wilderness.

Canada’s image as a conservation champion is on the line. Ottawa has repeatedly promised to help lead the world, pledging to protect 25% of its oceans and land by 2025 and 30% by 2030. Yet, only last year, the nation broke a far-less-ambitious pledge to protect just 17% of its land and water by 2020. The failure means that Canada can’t afford to miss its new targets without disappointing the international community – and Canadians – again.

Conservation organizations like CPAWS have a vital role in keeping the nation’s plans on track.


“Lots of countries look to Canada, with its vast wilderness and with the world’s longest coastline, to lead the charge when it comes to protecting nature,” says CPAWS National Executive Director Sandra Schwartz. “Conservation groups like ours have an essential role in encouraging governments to live up to those expectations.”

Canada has long been considered an international leader for conservation. Almost three decades ago, the country
became the first industrialized nation to sign the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UN CBD). Not long after, it became the permanent host of the convention’s international secretariat in Montreal. In 2010, it was among almost 200 other signatory countries to set key conservation benchmarks for 2020 – including goals
to protect 10% of marine areas and 17% of land and water.

Then, for many years, Canada  seemed to all but disappear from the international conservation stage. As the
2020 deadline loomed, the country was late announcing its own national goals and targets. While concerted eleventh hour efforts secured some successes – including increasing Canadian marine protected areas to 13.8% – Canada ended 2020 with just 13.1% of its land protected, well short of the 17% promised to the world.

“It was disappointing,” recalls Alison Woodley, Senior Strategy Advisor with CPAWS national office. “Canada didn’t keep its pledge, because for many years it didn’t take conservation seriously. When it finally did, it was late to the game.”


Many scientists agree that protecting large areas of the planet can help end the extinction of species. Research
suggests that protecting a minimum of 30% and up to 70% of land and ocean ecosystems can keep the planet healthy and ensure nature continues to provide ecosystem services for humanity.

In recent years, Canada has stepped forward as an early and vocal advocate for the idea. In 2020, for instance, Canada joined dozens of other nations in a “High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People,” committing to protect 30% of land and ocean by the end of the decade. In June 2021, the country signed a comparable pledge with G7 nations in their “2030 Nature Compact.”

But Canada’s failure to make its 2020 UN CBD protected-land target has nevertheless cast a shadow over its bold  new promises. To keep them, the country will have to almost double its currently-protected land within the next four years. “If we want to show the world that we’re serious about protected areas, there is no time to lose,” says Woodley.


CPAWS is working to help. One tool recently introduced by the CPAWS team is a protected areas Report Card. The inaugural issue, called The Grades Are In: A Report Card in Canada’s Progress in Protecting its Land and
Ocean, was published in the summer as a yardstick by which CPAWS will measure Canada’s commitment to the new targets in the years ahead.

The first Report Card looked back over the past decade and assigned grades to the provinces, territories and  federal government, evaluating their past efforts to reach – or not – 2020 protection targets. The grades will serve as a baseline and encourage more effective conservation action going forward.

Another tool is supporting and encouraging Indigenous-led conservation. For instance, CPAWS is promoting several large-scale conservation projects like the protection of the Seal River Watershed. That project would see the creation of a 50,000 square km Indigenous Protected Area in northern Manitoba.


The Seal River Watershed holds a whopping 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon in its b oreal soils, wetlands, and peatlands. That’s the same as eight y ears’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.


Reminding Canada that the rest of the world is paying attention also helps. In September, CPAWS was co-author of a motion at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress to recognize the need to ultimately conserve at least half the planet to successfully tackle the twin biodiversity and climate crises.

Motion 101 also acknowledged the importance of Indigenous peoples and called for respect for Indigenous rights in all conservation activities. The motion, co-written by CPAWS, the WILD Foundation, the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative, and other NGO partners, was approved by IUCN delegates representing dozens of countries, conservation groups, and Indigenous organizations.

While this country’s new protected-area targets may look ambitious compared to previous (and, in part,  unachieved) goals, this time momentum is on Canada’s side. With encouragement from CPAWS and other groups, Ottawa committed to more than $3 billion for nature conservation in the 2021 federal budget, including support  or Indigenous, provincial, and territorial government partners and NGOs to help meet the protected areas  benchmarks.

Thanks to the work of CPAWS and others, Canada’s pledge to once again lead the world in conservation may just be a promise we can count on.