Big questions still to be answered in solving agriculture’s carbon conundrum

Net emissions from Canadian agriculture could be as low as 12 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. They may also be as high as 71 million. It all depends on which methodologies, data, and definitions are used to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted, and the amount of carbon that’s sequestered.

This vast discrepancy is one example of the challenge for Canadian farmers and the agriculture sector in trying to understand what’s required to meet environmental commitments and goals set by governments and companies that are working toward a net zero target, says Joy Agnew, associate vice president for applied research at Olds College.

Agnew shared this example as part of her presentation entitled “The Carbon Conundrum” at CropConnect in Winnipeg earlier this month.

“Measuring emissions is incredibly challenging, especially from ag, because it’s so broad and diverse and variable. It varies wildly temporally and spatially. So it’s hard to measure. So right now, they’re reliant on pretty basic models that estimate emissions based on inputs and various other practices,” she explains, in the interview below. “So it’s an estimate to begin with, and yet we’re posed with these pretty robust targets to try to meet, and if we can’t accurately measure, how can we monitor and show that we’ve succeeded?” (Story continues below video)

The uncertainty in measuring carbon means net emissions for agriculture “could be somewhere between 1 per cent of Canada’s emissions, or 9 per cent of Canada’s emissions, which is a pretty, pretty big range. And we should probably try to figure out exactly what it is and where it is in that range,” says Agnew.

In addition to the data challenge, there are also significant questions that have yet to be answered around the implementation and adoption of practices that would help move toward a net zero goal, but create increased costs and risks for farmers in the meantime.

“If we try to hold true to those targets, to actually reach net zero by 2050, and reduce fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, it’ll have to be incredibly disruptive, which honestly isn’t realistic,” says Agnew. “There has to be sort of a happy medium between status quo and continuing as we’re going versus complete disruption of the way that we produce food.”

While there’s a growing list of farming practices and products that are proven to reduce emissions, in order to reach reasonable adoption rates of these practices, governments and other stakeholders will need to incentivize and support farmers in ways that have never been done before, she says.

That market signal to farmers could potentially come from carbon offset payments, but Agnew isn’t sure these types of incentives alone will be enough to drive the necessary adoption rates. She showed the audience at CropConnect a slide comparing the rate of adoption of zero-till practices in Alberta, which introduced an offset program in the early 2000s, and in Saskatchewan, where the incentive wasn’t offered.

“That graph shows the adoption rate of conservation tillage in Alberta before and after the offset program, it really didn’t change the slope. The trend really stayed the same. And in Saskatchewan, right side by side with no offset program, had the same adoption rate. So maybe incentives alone aren’t enough,” she says.

Listen to/watch the conversation above for more with Agnew on some of the big questions that have yet to be answered around carbon in agriculture, what it would take to meet government climate goals, and the research that needs to be done at places like Olds College to address these challenges.

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