Trying to Make Sense of Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plans for Agriculture

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This overview has been written for those in Canadian agriculture trying to understand what recent announcements and new funding commitments from Ottawa on net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions mean for Canadian farmers. The subject is quite confusing; indeed, it’s tempting for agriculturalists to just ‘tune out.’ However, because of the combination of anticipated obligations and the impending availability of financial incentives, I believe progressive farmers need to be well informed. In the following, I’ll try to make the complex as simple as I can while not missing critical details:

  • Agriculture GHG emission accounting has been managed in a confusing manner ever since member countries like Canada began submitting annual ‘Net Inventory Reports’ (NIR) on GHG emissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sometime during the 1990s. These NIR calculations are based on reporting protocols specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What’s classed as ‘Agriculture’ actually includes only a portion of agriculturally related net emissions – specifically, emissions associated with livestock farming, manure, nitrogen fertilizer application, carbon dioxide (CO2) released during urea and lime applications to soil, rice paddy nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, and a few others. But fossil fuels used in agriculture, energy used for fertilizer manufacturing, CO2 credits for biofuels produced from farm crops and processing byproducts, and net CO2 emissions from the creation and breakdown of farm soil organic matter are not included. Nor is any credit given to agriculture for the carbon contained in farm products sold off the farm – including crop exports to other countries. The oft-quoted ~8% of total national emissions attributed to agriculture – or about 59 M t/year of CO2 equivalent out of the 730 Mt Canadian total according to the most recent data (year 2019, data accessible here) – is an artifact of the calculation procedure. The number would be larger or smaller if various other items were included. I have discussed the significance of this elsewhere (here).
  • In a partial attempt to address this, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in preparing NIRs and related reports combines emissions classed by IPCC as agriculture with fossil fuel usage on farms to calculate the ‘Sectoral’ contribution from agriculture. The most recent number is 73 Mt/yr CO2e. However, this summation does not include other agricultural-related net emissions, especially the critical CO2 exchanges between soil and atmosphere that are highly dependent on both type of farming and differences in farm management. CO2 exchanges with farm soils are combined with similar ones from forestry, peat and wetland management and others in a category called Land Use, Land Use Management and Forestry (LULUCF). In the most recent Canadian NIR, agricultural land was a sink (negative net emission) for CO2, equivalent to 4 Mt/yr CO2e, even though the total LULUCF for Canada was positive because of larger emissions contributions from the other components.
  • The Government of Canada added significantly to the confusion with its publication in December 2020 of a major climate change document, A Healthy Economy and a Healthy Environment. In it, ECCC created a category called Natural Climate Solutions (NCS) that is similar to LULUCF but also involves additional agricultural items, including emissions from fertilizer application to farm soils. The choice of the term, ‘Natural Climate Solutions,’ and the high profile given to it were likely political; the term has received strong support in recent years from many NGOs and others. There was a major national ‘summit’ on this in Ottawa in early 2020, funded partly by ECCC. However, the decision to diverge from the IPCC/UNFCCC approach and place several farm-related items in NCS and not ‘Agriculture’ was most confusing to those of us in agriculture.  See the following Table extracted from an appendix to the report (available here), where ‘Natural Climate Solutions’ is relabelled as ‘LULUCF, NBS and agriculture measures,’ with NBS standing for ‘nature-based solutions.’

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  • This brings us to the 271-page 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan issued the Government of Canada on March 29, 2022 (available here) which includes separate sections for both Agriculture and what was earlier called Natural Climate Solutions, now called Nature-Based Solutions (also sometimes referred to in the report as ‘Nature-Based Climate Solutions’). The Agriculture section features the ‘Agricultural Sector’ emission of 73 Mt/yr CO2e (mainly livestock, manure and N fertilizer, plus farm fuel, as stated above), but then says, “Agricultural soils are also a significant carbon sink. In 2019, agricultural soils stored slightly more than 4 Mt, offsetting approximately 6% of total annual agricultural emissions.” The implication is that the 4 Mt amount is included in the Agricultural Sector sum of 73 Mt – which it is definitely not. Indeed, if the agricultural community were to increase the soil sink carbon storage to twice the 2019 amount – say 8 Mt/yr – the Agricultural Sector sum of 73 Mt/yr as calculated by ECCC would not change.
  • Perhaps less critical but still misleading is this statement a few paragraphs later: “Canadian agricultural soils have transformed over the last 20 years from a carbon source to a carbon sink.” That is true if any year before 2000 is used as the base. However, as this graph extracted from the March 2022 document shows, the annual carbon sink storage of Canadian farm soils has mostly decreased in recent years – largely as a result of a declining national beef herd size, and a consequent shift of perennial forages into annual crops. Those who advocate for reduced beef production/consumption in Canada are not allies of efforts to increase the size of the agricultural soil carbon reserve.

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This brings us to the Government of Canada (GoC) commitment for GHG reductions: 

  • In its December 2020 report, the GoC called for no reduction in Agriculture emissions by 2030 – and actually a small increase of 2 Mt CO2e/year to 74 Mt CO2e/year – compared to base year 2005. (See Table above). The projection was also for a 27 Mt/yr CO2e reduction in net emissions in ‘LULUCF, NBS and agriculture measures’ with about 17 Mt of this to come from changes in LULUCF and 10 Mt/yr of the reduction to come from the combination of reduced nitrogen fertilizer use in agriculture and ‘nature-based solutions.’ Based on data in the Canadian NIR (see above; also see here), it appears that reduced fertilizer usage represents about 4 Mt of the 10 Mt/yr.
  • These projected targets for 2030 from the 2020 report were altered only slightly in the document released in March 2022 (here). The 2030 goal for Agriculture was reduced to 73 Mt/yr CO2e for Agriculture from 74 Mt. The 2030 goal for Natural Climate Solutions (aka, LULUCF, NBS and agriculture measures) was reduced to -30 Mt/yr CO2e from -27 Mt. On first glance, Agriculture appears to be targeted for almost no reductions. However, the real agricultural reductions are in the LULUCF, NBS and agriculture measures section, including N fertilizer use reduction and carbon sequestration in farm soils.
  • If you check the fine print in the March 2022 document (See page 214 to 219 in an appendix section called, Modelling and Analysis of Canada’s Emissions Reduction Plan for 2030), you’ll find that the 2022 numbers actually differ substantially from those in the December 2020 report and/or the most recent NIR. For example, the 2030 reduction goal for the LULUCF portion changes from -17 Mt/year to -11 Mt, and the NBS and agricultural measures portion almost doubles, to -19 Mt/yr from 10 Mt.
  • To add to the confusion, the March 2022 document gives almost no guidance as to what is classified as a reduction in LULUCF, or NBS or agricultural measures (the exception being that the 4 Mt reduction for N fertilizer usage is clearly an ‘agricultural measure’). To read the text, it would imply that C sequestration associated with no-tillage and changes in cropping and crop cover would be a ‘nature-based solution’ and/or an ‘agricultural measure.’ However, the Canadian NIR documents make it clear that these are captured in LULUCF. So what’s to be changed and how will the GHG accounting occur? Who knows?
  • Bottom line: The 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan is for a reduction of 30 Mt/yr of CO2e by 2030 for LULUCF, nature-based solutions and agricultural measures, but the document provides almost no information as to what this means beyond vague generalities.
  • There is obviously more to come. For example, note this excerpt from a paragraph on Page 66: “Going Further – the Government of Canada commits to explore additional opportunities, including: …..Advance a Green Agricultural Plan for Canada, in consultation with the agriculture and agri-food sector, Indigenous Peoples, and other stakeholders, to establish a long-term vision and approach to agrienvironmental issues in order to advance the sustainability, competitiveness, and vitality of the sector.”
  • Those who interpret the March 2022 document as meaning little change for agriculture are very mistaken. 

Finally, let’s take a look at programs and funding: 

  • In December, 2020, the GoC initiated an ‘umbrella’ Natural Climate Solutions Fund, committing $3.16 billion to Natural Resources Canada over 10 years to plant 2 billion trees, $631 million to ECCC to “restore degraded ecosystems, protect wildlife, and improve land and resource management practices,” and $98.4 million in new funds to Agriculture and AgriFood Canada to be added to ~$85 million in reallocated money to created a new, $185 million Natural Climate Solutions for Agriculture Fund (NCSAF) (see here and here).
  • In March 2021, AAFC announced more details for NCSAF (including the Living Labs research and outreach program) and added $165.7 million for the Agricultural Clean Technology Program (ACTP) “that supports research, development and adoption of clean technologies.”
  • In the April 2021 Budget, the GoC added $200 million to the now renamed Agricultural Climate Solutions (ACS) Fund – bringing the total to $385 million – and allocated $50 million of ACTP funds for purchase of more efficient farm grain dryers (reference).
  • In December 2021, AAFC clarified that $185 million of ACS will be used to fund Living Labs research over 10 years and $200 million would go to a new 3-year, Agricultural Climate Solutions – On-Farm Climate Action Fund (ACS-OFCAF) “that will support farmers in adopting beneficial management practices (BMPs) that store carbon and reduce greenhouse gases in three areas: nitrogen management, cover cropping and rotational grazing practices” (reference).
  • In February 2022, AAFC announced that $182.7 million of ACS-OFCAF would go to 12 organizations to reduce GHG emissions by up to 2 million tonnes. (This is about double the cost per tonne compared to a recommendation from Farmers for Climate Solutions on which the ACS-OFCAF program was based. No explanation for the doubling was provided.) Usage of the remaining $17.3 million, out of the $200 million, remains unknown.
  • In March 2022, as part of its 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, the GoC announced another $270 million (to a total of $470 million) to ACS-OFCAF to “allow the program to top-up funding for some current successful applicants, broaden support to additional key climate mitigation practices, extend the program past its current end date of 2023/24, and support adoption of practices that contribute to the fertilizer emissions target and Global Methane Pledge.” The Canadian fertilizer emission reduction strategy is described here. The Global Methane Pledge is an international pledge made in late 2021 with few, if any, details released as of yet for Canadian agriculture.
  • An additional $150 million was announced in March 2022 “for a resilient agricultural landscapes program to support carbon sequestration, adaptation and address other environmental co-benefits.”
  • In its April 2022 Budget, AAFC added “$329.4 million over six years to triple the size of the Agricultural Clean Technology Program” and another “$100 million over six years to the federal granting councils to support post-secondary research in developing technologies and crop varieties that will allow for net-zero emission agriculture.”
  • There is a listing of programs and expenditures for both Agriculture and Nature-Based Solutions, in a final chapter of 2030 Emission Reduction Plan, but it provides no details on delivery plans and expected achievables for the specific programs/expenditures.

Some summary conclusions/opinions: 

  • A substantial amount of money has been committed by Ottawa since late 2020 for reductions in net GHG emissions in agriculture and related areas.
  • There appears to be large expenditures for cover crop establishment for which the underlying scientific support is weak (in my opinion) and for which it will be almost impossible to measure changes in soil carbon storage for many years.
  • I am more comfortable with the approach recently announced by AAFC for nitrous oxide emission reductions associated with fertilizer usage.
  • The steps announced to date for reductions in methane emissions in agriculture (largely related to ruminant animals) are vague and apparently minimal.
  • Curiously, and disappointingly at least for agriculture, none of the federal announcements or commitments refers to opportunities to increase albedo reflectance (the portion of incoming short-wave radiation reflected back into space). Practices such as no tillage and the use of land for annual cropping versus forest cover can mean important increases in albedo percentages. For example, in this recent paper, AAFC researchers concluded that albedo changes caused by no tillage in Prairie Canada have been more important than the associated soil carbon sequestration in reducing atmospheric warming potential.
  • The split of agriculture into two distinct compartments, Agriculture and Natural Climate Solutions (aka, Nature-Based Solutions) is likely to lead to future strategic difficulties for Canadian agriculture. Firstly, the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan calls for essentially no reductions in net emissions for what it terms as Agriculture, but 30 Mt/yr of CO2e for it calls NCS/NBS. A recent reaction by one prominent Canadian agricultural groups (check here) is an example of what’s ahead. All major reductions proposed for the agricultural/farming sector show up in the main category of NCS/NBS instead of Agriculture, including farm-soil C sequestration and reduced emissions from N fertilizer usage. If Canada increases beef production, the increased methane emissions from ruminant digestions and manure management will show up in the Agriculture leger, while the increased soil carbon storage caused by increased perennial forage production will show up as NCS/NBS. In this recent paper from ECCC and AAFC scientists, soil carbon sequestration from the associated increased perennial forage production was calculated to offset nearly 2/3 of methane and manure emissions caused by Canadian beef cattle.
  • If farmers increase input usage to increase crop photosynthesis, any added emissions from increased input usage show up as Agriculture; increased soil carbon storage shows up as NCS/NBS.
  • To expand on this point, I see future difficulties in two areas – one being journalists, NGOs and public researchers doing quick Internet searchers to see “what Canadian agriculture us doing to reduce GHG emissions” without being aware of the major NCS/NBS component. Another concern involves international ag emission comparisons based on use of data listed in GoC documents like the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan.
  • I would welcome increased efforts by AAFC and others in the GoC to explain, clarify and (hopefully) correct this source of confusion. A change in reporting to include all of agriculture under Agriculture in future reports would be far better, though I don’t see that as likely, given the dominant role of ECCC and its many eNGO friends. (Any weakening of the scope of NCS/NBS is likely to be viewed unfavourably by them.)
  • Also welcomed would be considerably more detail on how all the money committed to GHG reduction in agriculture, since late 2020, is to be used.

Please notify me of any errors – typos (which are my specialty) and other errors – at TerryDaynard@Gmail.com . Thanks.