Grain transportation consolidation hiked carbon footprint

It’s a widely acknowledged fact that the closure of branch railway lines and hundreds of rural elevators in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in higher farm production costs in Saskatchewan and more heavy traffic on the province’s roads and highways.

But a full accounting of those costs may still be evolving, especially now that a federal carbon tax is likely to result in higher commercial trucking costs.

In an April 3 presentation to the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, Lana Awada, a Saskatchewan economist from the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said consolidation in the province’s railway and grain-handling sectors forced the province’s farmers to increase their carbon footprint.

Between 1985 and 2016, longer grain hauls, by commercial trucking companies or growers themselves, contributed to a nearly 10-fold increase in carbon dioxide emissions during the transportation of Saskatchewan grains and oilseeds, Awada’s research suggests.

CO2 emissions from the transportation of Saskatchewan grains, oilseeds and farm inputs increased to an estimated 2.645 million tonnes in 2016, up from 0.274 million tonnes in 1985, Awada said.

Based on current federal carbon tax values of $20 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, the cost of that carbon emission increase alone sits at more than $47 million annually.

“Grain delivery points in Saskatchewan have been reduced dramatically — from 1,031 elevators in 1985 to 162 in 2016,” Awada said.

As a result, CO2 emissions from the transportation of grain also “increased dramatically,” she added.

Other factors affecting transportation emissions in the Saskatchewan crop sector included larger farm sizes, greater distances between fields and bin yards and increased productivity, which meant more bushels to transport.

Awada’s comments on crop transportation were part of a larger presentation that suggested Saskatchewan farmers have made impressive strides in reducing their carbon footprints over the past 30 years.

The adoption of beneficial, carbon sequestering farm practices such as no-till farming significantly reduced emissions from the Saskatchewan crop sector, she said.

A recent accounting greenhouse gas emissions suggested that net emissions from the crop sector — the difference between the greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount of carbon sequestered — were near zero in 2016.

In 1985, net emissions were estimated at five million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Awada said emissions from the Saskatchewan crop sector started to decrease in the 1990s and reached about 0.8 million tonnes in 2005.

Over the next decade, they fell even further, declining to 0.1 million tonnes in 2016.

“This decrease exceeds by multifold Canada’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 emission levels,” Awada said.

“The great efforts by Saskatchewan’s farmers should be recognized and compensated.”

APAS president Todd Lewis offered a similar perspective.

“We’re producing more bushels of grain and more pounds of meat than ever before in Saskatchewan with a lower and lower per unit carbon footprint,” he said.

“On the other side of the equation, the sequestration that we do has never been recognized and we need to have that recognized,” he added.

“Farmers are part of the solution, we’re not part of the problem.”

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