'Smart forests' help corporate net-zero ambitions take root

Canada Forest Trust, a national ESG company, has launched practical solution for those looking to lower their net carbon emissions

Gary Zed, founder of CFT, says seeing the devastation of forests first-hand inspired him to found his company. Originally from New Brunswick, Zed has maintained a salmon lodge there for more than 25 years | CFT

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's Philanthropy issue.

Sustainability – it’s a buzzword we’ve all heard a million times. As the climate crisis worsens, and uncertainty for the future grows, companies have never been more sensitive about doing their part for the environment. 

And yet, at the same time, the path to true sustainability has never been so murky and confusing. 

Gary Zed felt equally confused.

As a tax lawyer and adviser for family offices, corporations and high-net-worth families, he kept hearing first-hand a growing desire for environmental, social impact and governance (ESG) solutions. But he never knew how to act on it.

How can you connect the dots between a demand to get to net-zero emissions, and a clear, tangible solution that creates practical results?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, was found in nature.

For more than 25 years, Zed has maintained a salmon lodge in New Brunswick. While it was always a place of peace for him, he often heard complaints from locals about the devastation of forests.

Then he saw it with his own eyes – vast forests being prematurely cut for lumber and other commercial uses, rather than preserved and nurtured for future generations.

So Zed, now one of the largest landowners in Atlantic Canada, started to connect another set of dots. He began buying both deforested and forested land in the area, simply to manage, preserve and protect it.

“The power of nature, the climate anxiety experienced by our youth and the demands from consumers and capital markets for businesses to be net-zero focused, opened my eyes to something more meaningful,” he explains.

“And frankly, I am an entrepreneur at heart. So it got me thinking: I have seen ESG take off around the world, and the compelling need around climate action. Meanwhile, there is now a necessity that corporations take steps toward a net-zero world. If I am already buying deforested land, and I am going to reforest it, why wouldn’t I get corporations and individuals involved? It kills three birds with one stone.”

That was the moment Canada Forest Trust (CFT) took root.

In plain language? CFT builds forests for clients to help them get to net zero.

CFT, a national company, has spent the last two years building and refining its offering and beta testing its platform. It now has 25 members on the team, has built strategic partnerships and has attracted leading experts to its boards.

Using the company’s proprietary carbon calculator, companies and individuals determine their impact on the environment and then CFT can guide them to the type and size of forest they need to build. 

From there, according to Zed, it is a five-step process to achieve a net-zero goal, beginning with land procurement. 

Zed recently launched a sister company – Canada’s Land Trust – for farming and forestry families wanting to sell or lease their land for the purpose of reforestation efforts. 

“We need to have a portfolio of land available across the country for our customers wanting to participate in forest building exercises to get them to net zero,” Zed says. 

Some clients are very focused on economic reconciliation and are keen to have meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities. In those cases, partnering with Indigenous communities is often crucial to the process: Communities bring profound generational land knowledge, and CFT’s program brings the potential to create meaningful economic opportunities and skills development for Indigenous youth wanting to remain on their lands.

“When we meet with Indigenous community leaders, we talk about partnership building, sustainable employment, skills development, education, knowledge sharing and revenue sharing”, says JP Gladu, a prominent Indigenous leader and former CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. He now serves as the chair of CFT’s board of directors, providing a key connection to Indigenous leaders across the country.

The next step in the process is land preparation, or getting land ready for its environmental makeover. That includes scarifying the land, performing a species assessment and getting the client up and running with their very own private portal on the CFT website, known as the Smart Forest Intelligence Dashboard. 

This digital platform helps put the “smart” in smart forests, according to Zed. It provides a significant amount of information for clients, such as the location of the forest, its type, its age and a breakdown of the species and biodiversity found there. Most importantly, it offers statistics on a company’s path to net zero.

With a carbon footprint determined, and the land identified and prepared, it is soon be time for everyone’s favourite step – planting.

Although planting tends to get the most attention, Zed points out this step means little without the final two steps – preserving and protecting.

Trees might be in the ground, but CFT must measure, monitor and maintain the forest through professional inspections and management to ensure the mortality rate is low. These results are then reflected in real time on a client’s personalized dashboard and in an annual audited report.

“When you come on board, you end up with a forever forest guarantee. Which essentially means, once we build the forest, we will apply proper forest management to ensure the long-term health and maximum carbon sequestration,” Zed adds.

Clients need to be real about their respective climate pledges. Most are looking out to 2050 and beyond in terms of their goals to be net zero.  

The vision, Zed explains, is to create a real, tangible and personal solution that all Canadians can feel invested in. 

That means a forest for everyone – whether it be for an individual, a small business, a large corporation or even a school. 

According to Zed, developing partnerships with educational institutions has been a key area of growth for CFT. Students can now raise funds to create and support a forest for their school by selling seedlings. The forest’s growth and preservation can be incorporated into a school’s curriculum through field trips, digital monitoring and volunteerism. 

Zed adds that CFT hired several student interns this past summer, and over the coming years, the company has committed $250,000 for student scholarship programs.

The overarching philosophy, he says, is improving the impact, reporting and storytelling around carbon and biodiversity and the important role each of us can play to bring nature to the forefront as a solution. 

“[It’s about] democratizing forests to make them accessible to all Canadians so we can all do our part to get to net-zero emissions,” he says. 

“Many social impact investments can be out of sight – so the biggest fear is whether you are truly having a measurable and transparent impact. So, CFT is about an authentic turnkey program, where you can experience forest building in a transparent way.”

This article was originally published in BIV Magazine's Philanthropy issue under the headline ‘Smart forests take root.’ Check out BIV’s full digital magazine archive here.