The Canadian government is counting on a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 2030 to reach its international climate change commitments, but unless there are changes to the way emissions are calculated, it appears farming practices that are proven to reduce emissions from fertilizer would not be counted toward meeting the target.

Even if farmers increase their use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, deploy variable rate technology, and implement practices in line with the well-known 4R nutrient stewardship program, those actions would not be accounted for under the Canadian government’s current method for estimating the amount of N2O emitted from fertilizer.

Subsequently, if farming practices that reduce emissions are not recognized, experts say the obvious other — perhaps only — option for the federal government to reach its 30 per cent target is to follow Europe in regulating the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that can be applied each year.

Hitting the 30 per cent target and avoiding a scenario where fertilizer use is restricted, which Fertilizer Canada and MNP aimed to describe in a report released last week, is not as simple as implementing better nutrient stewardship practices at the farm level.

“I’m skeptical right now as to whether or not they can actually meet that 30 per cent reduction, given the current methodologies,” says Joshua Bourassa, research associate with the Simpson Centre at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, in the interview below.

“Right now you really have two options. You can reduce the emission factor or you can reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used,” he explains. “Because the estimates for the emission factor are based off of precipitation and potential evaporation, as well as topography, there’s not really a lot farmers can do to reduce that emission factor.”

So let’s take a look at how the federal government estimates emissions from fertilizer. (article continues below)

Listen to Kelvin Heppner’s conversation with Joshua Bourassa on how emissions from fertilizer are calculated in the context of the Liberals’ 30 per cent reduction target:

How emissions from fertilizer are measured

When it comes to emissions estimates, people involved in shaping climate policy, including the Liberal government, pay close attention to the figures in the annual National Inventory Report that Canada submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change each year.

It’s the number in this report that the federal government wants to see drop by 30 per cent in less than nine years.

At its most basic level, the formula for calculating emissions from nitrogen fertilizer for this report involves multiplying the amount of fertilizer used by an emission factor:

Emissions = fertilizer used * emission factor

As Bourassa explains, the emission factor part of this equation is largely based on a ratio of precipitation to evaporation potential, and topography. Reduced tillage and irrigation are also accounted for by the Canadian government at this stage. For example, the emission factor for irrigated acres is simply multiplied by 10, without accounting for different approaches to irrigation, notes Bourassa.

The other part of the equation — the amount of fertilizer used — is estimated based on recommended rates for the type crops grown and government data on fertilizer shipments at the provincial level. (Sidenote: this is where there could be partial indirect accounting for on-farm practices that increase fertilizer efficiency under the current methodology, assuming farmers are using less fertilizer to achieve the same crop yield.)

These calculations are done for 405 regions or “ecodistricts” across the country, notes Bourassa. Where local data isn’t available or reliable, provincial and national averages and estimates are plugged into these equations. This information is then aggregated to generate the Canada-wide emissions estimate that’s published in the National Inventory Report, he explains..

In theory, the emission factor for a given area could be reduced based on the rate of adoption of farm practices that limit emissions. As an example, Bourassa notes Alberta’s carbon offset program applied a 15 per cent reduction to the emissions factor if 4R (right source, right rate, right time, right place) principles were followed. “But it doesn’t appear to be implemented within the methodologies used for estimating (emissions) at the national level,” he says.

More data needed

So why can’t the government simply start accounting for the use of different practices and products that lower emissions per unit of nitrogen fertilizer?

The primary obstacle is a lack of reliable data on emissions and the adoption of these practices at the ecodistrict — or even field — level, says Bourassa.

“It just comes down to is the information available? Do the farmers have information that specific? And if they do, are they willing to share it with researchers and other organizations that are looking at these problems?” he says.

“It requires building a bit of trust between some of the institutions and producers to say ‘we want to work through these problems together, we want to be able to set up these programs to best estimate how your management practices are affecting emissions so there isn’t larger emission reductions programs put in place without fulling understanding the picture.'”

Still voluntary and aspirational?

It remains to be seen what kind of new commitments federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will make at the UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland in November, but the government is already banking on the 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer emissions to meet its existing pledge to reduce overall emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.

Officials with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have described the fertilizer target as “voluntary and aspirational,” but Bourassa notes the government’s modelling includes the full 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer emissions.

A spokesperson for AAFC told RealAgriculture the fertilizer emission target “is not aimed at reducing fertilizer use, but rather at associated nitrous oxide emissions.” However, unless the challenges in accounting for on-farm practices, as outlined by Bourassa, are addressed, it is not clear how the government would reach the target without putting a cap on fertilizer use.

Agriculture department officials had planned to hold formal consultations on the fertilizer target early this fall, but due to the election, it’s not clear when those meetings, where the government could potentially provide more details on how it plans to reach the target, will be held.

Related:

2030 target creating uncertainty around the future of fertilizer use

Regulated fertilizer reduction would cost Canadian farmers $48 billion by 2030: report

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