Carbon hits the east-west divide

Carbon depletion versus sequestration may be why Ottawa isn’t recognizing prairie efforts

Canadian east versus west politics likely factors into why the federal government isn’t talking about the sequestration of carbon in prairie soil.

Information compiled by Agriculture Canada shows soil organic carbon is increasing in western Canadian cropland with the reduction of tillage and implementation of direct seeding, while cropland in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes continues to lose soil organic carbon, largely because of the higher dependence on tillage, said Mario Tenuta of the Soil Ecology Laboratory at the University of Manitoba.

“If you were (Prime Minister) Justin (Trudeau) and you said, ‘let’s give these folks in Gravelbourg, (Sask.,) some carbon credits,’ fantastic. At the same time, somebody down in Hamburg, Ont., is going to have to lose their credits, in other words pay for their loss. He’s (Trudeau) smart enough to realize that he’s not going to go there,” Tenuta said during his presentation at a Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association meeting in Saskatoon.

“That’s a political nuclear bomb. That’s why we aren’t hearing much about carbon sequestration at a national level.”

The federal government announced in 2016 it’s implementing a minimum nationwide carbon price starting at $10 per tonne in 2018 and increasing to $50 per tonne by 2022. It will apply where there is no provincial carbon pricing program in place, such as Saskatchewan.

Provinces have the ability to design the carbon pricing scheme to allow for carbon sequestration by farmers, but this would be a difficult task in Saskatchewan.

SSCA member John Bennett, who outlined the organization’s Soil Carbon Position Paper at CropSphere in Saskatoon, said Saskatchewan has two things in its arsenal of addressing greenhouse gasses.

“One is the carbon capture and storage in the power plant in the south, which does slightly less than a million metric tonnes a year,” he said.

“Soils sequester, depending on what you want to take for acres, somewhere between nine and 20 million. We are a huge player.”

The Saskatchewan government has recognized the amount of carbon being sequestered by growers in the province, but it’s unlikely to compensate growers if it does release a carbon pricing scheme.

For the Saskatchewan government, a national carbon policy that recognizes carbon sequestered through agricultural practice would be preferable to a blanket carbon tax.

The federal government released a draft legislative proposal Jan. 15 that will allow it to provide carbon tax rebate cheques directly to people in provinces that refuse to impose a carbon tax of their own.

Trudeau said in an interview with the Canadian Press that no final decision has been made on exactly how Ottawa will handle the revenues.

Alberta has paid farmers for carbon sequestration since 2007 through the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, which is designed to encourage large greenhouse gas emitters to reduce their emissions.

However, Bennett said the Alberta program is designed to benefit the big industry emitters and aggregators of the credits. It’s hardly worth growers’ time to do the paperwork for the amount of money it brings to the farmgate, he added.

Manitoba’s carbon policy exempts farmers from paying the carbon tax for farm fuel, although carbon sequestration derived through good management is not rewarded.

If specific farming sectors are rewarded or punished for the amount of greenhouse gases, including carbon, that is emitted into the atmosphere, then it’s feasible the farming practices used by western Canadian grain growers would provide dividends.

However, there is little indication from the federal government that it’s interested in considering the actual balance of greenhouse gases emitted or sequestered by specific farming region, practice or sector.

Beyond the east-west divide, livestock operations also have a relatively high greenhouse gas footprint in the form of nitrous oxide, which is a much more potent gas than carbon dioxide.

Bennett said the SSCA is not advocating for or against a carbon tax or any specific carbon market structure. Instead, it wants an equitable treatment of carbon that rewards good management that results in carbon sequestration.

“What the carbon tax is designed to do is to penalize an emitter,” he said.

“Our position is that if there is a penalty for emitting CO2, there should be an equal and opposite reward for removing it.”

Inconsistent carbon sequestration in Canadian forests also hurts western growers’ chances of being rewarded for sequestering carbon.

Tenuta said Canadian officials have shied away from advocating for the inclusion of carbon sequestration in soil at the international level because Canadian forests are not the carbon sink they were once thought to be.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government and subsequent Liberal governments were forceful at the international level in pushing to get carbon sequestration in soil included in the discussions and agreements on climate change.

This was largely because Canadian officials thought there was a massive amount of carbon being taken up in the boreal forest. However, Tenuta said once federal scientists looked closely at the carbon sequestration and emissions rates of Canadian forests over time, they found the amount of carbon being sequestered to be highly variable.

Some years there would be huge carbon sequestrations, other years would be neutral and then there were years with a massive release of carbon from forest fires.

“Canada immediately shut up on the world scene and said, ‘carbon sequestration, we’re not talking about it,’ ” Tenuta said.

“If you talk about it for soils for direct seeding, then other countries are going to make us talk about it for forest.”

In 2005, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government set Canada’s original reduction target, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

While using 2005 emissions as the measure for all carbon gains or losses may work for most industries in Canada, it presents a big problem for western grain growers.

Much of the soil organic carbon gains enabled by direct seeding happened before 2005 because most western grain growers transitioned to direct seeding before then.

“This is a painful, painful thing,” Bennett said.

“It’s enshrined in federal policy, and it’s suggesting that any thing to count as a carbon offset has to be additional to what was done in 2005.”

Furthering the deck-stacking against western grain growers are the carbon models that the federal government uses — the Century Model — which suggests that soil organic carbon levels out at a steady state after 20 to 30 years of direct seeding.

“The challenge is the Century Model is a model that a lot of federal policy is made on, and if you believe the century model, it would tell you that there is not much more that can be gained in sequestering carbon,” Bennett said.

He said the Prairie Soil Carbon Balance Project (PSCBP ) is an important initiative that will help truth carbon models of prairie soils.

The project, which has been running for 20 years, measures soil organic carbon levels in approximately 130 sites around Saskatchewan. The carbon levels at these sites were measured before and five times since the uptake of direct seeding in the province.

Bennett said the project shows soil organic carbon has increased in minimum tillage fields far beyond what the century model predicts.

“The Prairie Soil Carbon Balance Project to date, which has run 20 years, is showing there is some serious weakness in the Century Model,” Bennett said.

“I think the ag sector should pay very close attention to this because what it would do is it would indicate that there is tremendous potential here that is not being recognized.”

He said the SSCA is planning a second PSCBP.

There are also ongoing studies examining if rotations that include pulses, canola or cover crops are capable of sequestering carbon beyond what the Century Model predicts.

Tenuta said it’s also difficult to implement carbon regulations that account for carbon being sequestered into soil because even though recommended agronomic practices increase soil organic carbon, the carbon can quickly be lost.

“We can also lose the organic matter if we till the soil or if we changed our rotation,” he said.

“So that’s a thing we would have to address as well, in terms of do we have to worry if we have to change the land use and it loses carbon and you’ve received carbon credits for it in the past?”

See AAFC’s Soil Organic Matter Indicator at

For more information on the SSCA’s Soil Carbon Position Paper, visit

No premium paid for low greenhouse gas footprint

Western Canadian grain farmers who direct seed and use recommended rotations that include a pulse have among the world’s lowest greenhouse gas footprints when it comes to emissions per bushel of grain produced.

However, there is no premium being paid for this efficiency on the bulk of Canadian exports.

This is largely because markets where much of Canadian grain end up, often in Asian destinations, are not looking for sustainability measures when sourcing grain.

Also, Canada’s global pledge to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 requires overall greenhouse gas emission reductions, which is not necessarily compatible with focusing on efficiency per unit of production.

Mario Tenuta of the Soil Ecology Laboratory at the University of Manitoba said focusing only on greenhouse gas per bushel produced is a bad way to frame the issue because Canadian crops are constantly getting larger, so there can still be an increase of N20 emissions from Canadian growers even if the greenhouse gas level per bushel is reduced.

“I also think that in some cases the efficiency approach makes us relax a little bit, whereas if we say we are going to reduce the N20 emissions per acre, it means we have to work a lot harder.

“We have to do the research, come up with the practices, do the extension, find out the costs, the profitability and the economics of those practices. I think it can be done, we just have to make a real effort to do it,” Tenuta said.

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