Opinion

The federal government has its eye on reducing nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer, but it’s not clear how it intends to reach its target, and whether the target is achievable without having a detrimental impact on crop yields.

Last December, while announcing the federal carbon tax would be increasing to $170/tonne of CO2 equivalent, the Liberal government also unveiled a 30 per cent reduction target for emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by 2030, when compared with 2020 as a benchmark year.

The government says the reduction is necessary to meet Canada’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and net-zero by 2050.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) held informal meetings regarding the target with farm and industry groups this past spring. More formal consultations on how N fertilizer emissions could be reduced by 30 per cent were planned for early this fall, but it’s likely they will now be delayed by the impending federal election campaign.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office has repeatedly referred to the target as “voluntary” and “aspirational,” however there’s definitely a belief among industry stakeholders that it would not remain voluntary if push comes to shove with meeting the 30 per cent goal, which the government is counting on to reduce emissions by an estimated four megatonnes CO2 equivalent.

The big question: could the government ultimately restrict or cap the amount of fertilizer farmers use to meet this 30 per cent target?

It depends on whether emissions can be reduced by 30 per cent using practices that lower emissions per unit of fertilizer applied, such as those under the 4R nutrient stewardship framework. Just as important, it also depends on how emissions — and reductions in emissions — are measured.

In an email to RealAgriculture, a spokesperson for AAFC emphasizes “the 30 per cent reduction target is not aimed at reducing fertilizer use, but rather at associated nitrous oxide emissions, including direct emissions following fertilizer application, indirect emissions from nitrogen leached from fields, and indirect emissions from ammonia nitrogen volatilization.”

“All practices that could contribute to a reduction in nitrous oxide emissions associated with fertilizer use will be considered, including those associated with the 4Rs,” continues the AAFC official.

If 4R practices are recognized, there is some research, including work led by Mario Tenuta at the University of Manitoba, showing enhanced efficiency fertilizers could potentially reduce emissions within range of the 30 per cent target. Sorted then, right?

Not so fast.

Because the AAFC spokesperson clearly say changes in fertilizer emissions “will be measured in line with the methodologies used for reporting nitrous oxide emissions from the agriculture sector in the National Inventory Report (NIR) developed by Environment and Climate Change Canada.”

Even if 4R practices are recognized, the government’s timeline for implementing, measuring, and accounting for them is also an issue, as from a farmer’s perspective, there are only eight growing seasons between now and 2030.

This statement seems to contradict the promise to recognize practices that reduce emissions intensity, as the NIR hasn’t accounted for 4R practices in the past.

The NIR follows the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s standards for estimating and reporting emissions, and the Canadian government is committed to using the international protocol, which means it’s not clear how farm-level improvements in reducing fertilizer emissions would even be captured in the government’s official greenhouse gas math.

Even if 4R practices are recognized, the government’s timeline for implementing, measuring, and accounting for them is also an issue, as from a farmer’s perspective, there are only eight growing seasons between now and 2030.

Add it all up, and you can’t help but wonder about the likelihood of restrictions on fertilizer use — a cap on emissions from nitrogen fertilizer — serving as the government’s mechanism for reaching the 30 per cent reduction.

Fertilizer Canada, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, Grain Growers of Canada, and others are warning the government that restrictions on overall fertilizer use would have a direct negative impact on crop yields, farm incomes, and Canada’s overall agricultural output. It’s possible overall emissions could even increase, as more acres and other inputs, such as fuel, would likely be required to produce the same amount of food.

A mandated reduction in fertilizer use would also contradict the Liberal government’s own stated goals for boosting agricultural output in the often-quoted Barton Report and the recently passed Liberal policy motion to promote Canada as “an agricultural superpower.”

“Let me be clear: reducing N2O emissions by 30 per cent is extremely ambitious and perhaps even unachievable without compromising crop yields and thereby threatening global food security and our position as a global leader in agriculture,” noted Candace Laing, vice president of sustainability and stakeholder relations for fertilizer manufacturer and retailer Nutrien, speaking to the House of Commons agriculture committee in May.

It appears AAFC is aware of the concerns about how emissions from fertilizer will be measured. The participants in this spring’s informal consultations received an email last month indicating future discussions may focus on the challenge of accurately measuring fertilizer emissions, as well as ways to properly measure and communicate the impact of farm-level practices.

AAFC also says it’s in the process of summarizing the feedback it has received to date to serve as a guide for the formal consultations that were to begin in early fall.

In Europe, the EU has mandated a 20 per cent reduction in fertilizer use, including manure, by 2030.

Whether Canada’s fertilizer policy will follow what’s happening in Europe is still to be determined at this point, but the conversation, which could have a huge impact on Canadian crop production, has started and will likely intensify in the coming months.

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