It’s been two years since the federal government first announced its 30 per cent fertilizer emissions reduction target.
That means more than 20 percent of the timeframe for farmers, agronomists, fertilizer suppliers, and researchers to work toward meeting the goal by 2030 has already expired.
The clock is ticking, but there’s been very little progress toward solving a key piece of the puzzle on how the target will be met.
We know there are things farmers can do to reduce nitrous oxide or N2O emissions. These include split fertility applications, enhanced efficiency fertilizers, deep-banding, variable rate, and so on.
We also know the government is counting on farmers to implement these practices. While it still refers to the target as “voluntary and aspirational,” an absolute 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer emissions relative to 2020 is built into Canada’s plan for meeting its 2030 commitment in the Paris Agreement.
It’s the link between these two pieces of information that is still missing.
As it stands, farmers could do exactly what the federal government is encouraging them to do and implement many of these nitrous oxide reducing practices (if they aren’t already using them), and it would not change the official estimate for emissions from fertilizer.
Minister Bibeau and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have pointed to the 4R nutrient stewardship practices as part of the solution over the past year. The problem is these practices are not acknowledged or accounted for in the formula Environment and Climate Change Canada uses to come up with the fertilizer emissions number in the annual National Inventory Report.
That’s because the Canadian government’s methodology for estimating emissions from fertilizer is mainly based on the volume of fertilizer sold, weather-related variables, and topography. It does not account for farmers taking steps to reduce emissions, and it leaves volume of fertilizer sold as the main variable that can be managed, leading to concerns about a possible fertilizer volume reduction.
Call it a discrepancy, a contradiction, an absurdity — this fundamental piece of the puzzle needs to be sorted out. Until that happens, we don’t really even know what the 2020 baseline is that we’re comparing against, as changes to the way emissions are estimated would also be applied retroactively (and there certainly were farmers using practices that reduced N2O emissions in 2020).
To their credit, AAFC’s discussion paper on the fertilizer target published in March 2020 acknowledged this problem, but it did not present a clear path forward. Canada follows the protocols laid out by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change for measuring emissions from fertilizer, so there doesn’t appear to be a quick and easy way to update the methodology.
The lack of good data is another puzzle piece that needs to be addressed for both estimating total emissions and accounting for on-farm practices that reduce emissions. The data issue was also mentioned in AAFC’s discussion paper, but there’s no sign of a major effort to collect higher resolution data on actual N2O emissions from fields across Canada’s vast geography.
As for next steps, the consultations on AAFC’s discussion paper wrapped up in August. At the time, the department planned to publish a “What We Heard” report in the fall. There are now mixed signals on when this report will be released, but the latest word is it will only be published in early 2023.
In other words, the wait for more information and much-needed clarity continues, two years later.