Few financial gains for carbon reduction in agriculture

Canadian farmers are already efficient producers and have a small carbon footprint: Canadian Federation of Agriculture

GUELPH, Ont. — Agriculture’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil is gaining traction among climate change policy makers.

“No other sector has this ability, and it is being recognized globally,” said environmental consultant Karen Haugen-Kozyra, head of Iresco Solutions in Alberta.

The next step is to find ways to pay farmers for improved production practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Alberta has had a carbon market for 10 years, and 50 million tonnes of offsets have been registered. About 12 million tonnes have been sequestered under the no-till protocol in Alberta, worth about $150 to $200 million, she said at the recent Canadian Forage and Grassland Association annual meeting held in Guelph.

Ongoing research shows about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon are held in the soil supporting grasslands and pasture. The estimated value of this storage is $82.5 billion, but there has been no real financial gain for landowners.

Successful carbon programs must be practical and have a strong science basis so that farmers might consider them.

“If you start out too complex, you are not going to get projects. If the rules are too loose, you lose credibility,” she said.

Financial gains for sequestering carbon may be limited because Canadians are efficient producers and already leave a small carbon footprint, said Drew Black of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which is a member of the World Farmers’ Organization’s climate change working group.

The Paris international climate change agreement has set Canada’s target at 30 percent below 2005 emission levels by 2030. The agreement includes provisions for emissions trading, but details are still being worked out.

The Paris agreement addressed the need to safeguard food security and agricultural production. Ninety percent of countries within the agreement included agriculture as part of their solution to re-duce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We finally had a bit of a breakthrough in agriculture discussions at the international level,” said Black.

France launched the Four by 1000 initiative, which said a four percent increase of carbon in soils not only creates more fertile soils but also would account for all new carbon released into the atmosphere. This has not received much policy development.

A lot of this is already done in Canada, but other nations do not have the technology or expertise to carry it out, he said.

“Those who have been doing really great practices for a long time show that there is less room to sequester carbon,” he said.

“The financial opportunities for producers are likely to be mixed.”

The push may come from big global brands that have endorsed climate smart agriculture and internalized the price of carbon within their supply chain.

There is a patchwork of programs in Canada and internationally. Some are intensely bureaucratic, said Black.

Forty-two countries have implemented a carbon price that ranges from $1 per tonne in the Ukraine to $126 per tonne in Sweden. These programs can be an administrative burden for producers, who may have to deal with complicated paperwork and verification for relatively low compensation for offsets.

“Smaller producers simply do not have the time or the acreage to make it worthwhile,” he said.

The forestry sector is further ahead because countries are willing to pay to stop deforestation.

A patchwork of carbon pricing exists in Canada, but 80 percent of Canadians are probably living under some form of carbon pricing.

Canadian agriculture represents about three percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Some agriculturally relevant offsets are:

  • conservation cropping
  • nitrous oxide emissions reduction with more precise fertilizer management
  • beef production that emphasizes low residual feed intake, reduced age at slaughter and lower methane emissions from fed cattle

Sustainability initiatives in Canada that provide specific requirements to be more environmentally friendly include:

  • national environmental farm plan
  • roundtable on sustainable beef
  • roundtable on sustainable crops

These are good initiatives but the CFA has said climate change policy must not create a perverse disincentive for food production.

CFA policy calls for:

  • an exemption from carbon pricing on all farm fuel including diesel. natural gas and propane
  • offset programs designed to encourage producer adoptions
  • better understanding of agriculture among environment ministries
  • more investment in clean technology, innovation and opportunities in the bioeconomy
  • increased investments to help producers adapt to climate change and build resilience

Offset protocols could provide a new but likely small revenue stream for farmers, especially as new ones are developed. As the price of carbon rises, the payouts may be greater and may be an in-centive for producers to sign on.

However, the higher costs of production for some commodities may wipe out any potential benefits from the offsets, said Black.

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