Trying to wrap our heads around the federal fertilizer emissions plan — a timeline of how we got to this point

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The Canadian government’s plan to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer has gained widespread attention over the last few weeks, with plenty of unanswered questions and uncertainty surrounding the proposal.

Originally announced in late 2020, the plan to reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from synthetic fertilizer by 30 per cent in 2030 relative to a 2020 baseline has raised concern about the possibility of restrictions on fertilizer use and a consequential drop in crop yields.

Some of this concern is due to legitimate, factual reasons, but some can also be attributed to a combination of misinformation and misunderstanding of the issue.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and her department have repeatedly said the government is targeting emissions from fertilizer, not fertilizer itself, and that they want to encourage the adoption of beneficial management practices that result in lower emissions.

However, one of the major gaps in the proposed policy is the fact the Environment and Climate Change Canada’s current method for taking inventory of emissions from fertilizer does not account for these practices and is primarily based on the overall volume of fertilizer sold.

There are products and practices, such as enhanced efficiency fertilizers, deep banding, variable rate fertilizer application, split applications, and others, that farmers use to varying degrees and are proven to significantly reduce the emissions of N2O per bushel or tonne of crop that’s produced, but they are not accounted for in the National Inventory Report that the Canadian government collects each year. So while the government has explicitly said it does not intend to restrict fertilizer use, as currently calculated, the simplest way for the government to report lower emissions from fertilizer would be to reduce the volume that is sold each year.

Another challenge with this policy is crop size is not part of this equation. The federal government wants to be able to report an absolute reduction in emissions of 30 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2020 baseline. This means if farmers grow larger crops in the effort to alleviate food shortages, such as those caused by the war in Ukraine, the relative or per-bushel reduction in emissions would have to be larger than 30 per cent to account for the added production.

Ultimately, the Canadian government is already banking on a full 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer emissions to meet its existing pledge to reduce overall Canadian emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.

There are soil fertility experts who expect farmers will be required to have a 4R-certified agronomist or crop advisor sign off on their fertilizer plans in the future. While fertilizer companies would likely accept this, farmers’ reaction to this type of regulation would likely depend where it lands on the spectrum from voluntary to mandatory.

What happens next, and how the government plans to achieve this 30 per cent target, is not yet known, but here’s a timeline and a collection of past coverage explaining what we do know and how we got to the point where this issue has started to receive widespread attention:

Fertilizer emissions reduction issue timeline:

December 11, 2020 – The federal government unveils a climate plan that includes a $170/tonne carbon tax by 2030 and a nitrogen fertilizer emission reduction target of 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030. The government says it will work with fertilizer manufacturers, farmers, provinces and territories on how to reach the target, but no details were given. A government official, speaking with RealAgriculture, emphasized the target is to be “voluntary” and “aspirational.”

Early 2021 – Industry and commodity groups raise concerns the government may reduce fertilizer use as the method for calculating emissions from fertilizer is primarily based on the volume of fertilizer used.

September 2021 — Fertilizer Canada publishes a report, compiled by MNP, that forecasts total farm income loss of $48 billion by 2030 if the Canadian government follows Europe’s example and implements a 20 per cent reduction in fertilizer use to reach its 30 per cent emissions target. Yield gaps by 2030 are estimated at 23.6 bushels per acre per year for canola, 67.9 bushels per acre per year for corn, and 36.1 bushels per acre per year for spring wheat. Given constant prices, the total value of lost production grows to $10.4 billion per year by 2030.

October 2021 — An explanation of how Canada calculates emissions from fertilizer — at its most basic level, the formula for calculating emissions from nitrogen fertilizer involves multiplying the amount of fertilizer used (or sold) by an emission factor, explains Joshua Bourassa of the University of Calgary. While fertilizer volume is estimated based on acres of different crop types and government data on fertilizer shipments at the provincial level. The emission factor part of this equation is based on a ratio of precipitation to evaporation potential, and topography. Reduced tillage and irrigation are also factored into the equation at this point.

November 2021 — Agriculture Minister Bibeau acknowledges “the 4R approach is a good approach, and it’s going in the right direction,” in an interview with RealAgriculture following the 2021 federal election, acknowledging there are ways to reduce emissions without reducing fertilizer use.

March 11, 2022 — Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) publishes a discussion paper on the federal fertilizer emissions plan acknowledging the emissions reductions of many of the 4R type practices. Fertilizer Canada, the Canadian Canola Growers Association and others see this report as a move in the right direction. “We’re definitely seeing a bit of shift in tone, or maybe just more precision in approach,” says Karen Proud, CEO of Fertilizer Canada. The AAFC report acknowledges that several of the faring practices mentioned in this report “are not currently captured in the National Inventory Report methods due to lack of farm activity data.” While the paper shows AAFC is aware of the complexity of the reaching the target, it’s not clear whether Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is on the same page as AAFC.

April 2022 — The Canadian government reports a 20 per cent reduction in emissions from nitrogen fertilizer in its official 2022 greenhouse gas inventory report thanks to an update to how emissions from fertilizer are estimated. The reduction, however, will not count toward the federal government’s mandate to reduce emissions from fertilizer by 30 per cent by 2030, as the new method for calculating emissions will also be retroactively applied to the 2020 baseline.

Spring/summer 2022 — Details start to emerge regarding the federally-funded On-Farm Climate Action Fund. Although separate from the fertilizer emissions reduction target, it’s related in that the government is offering millions of dollars in incentive funding via multiple industry/non-profit partners. Individual farms could be eligible for up to $75 thousand in cost-shared funding to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer through different methods, including enhanced efficiency fertilizers and different fertilizer application equipment.

June-July 2022 — Dutch farmer protests against nitrogen restrictions gain global attention, after the country’s Minister of Nature and Nitrogen introduces targets for reducing nitrous oxide emissions in some areas by up to 70 per cent by 2030. Dutch farm groups say the rules would lead to a 30 per cent reduction of the country’s livestock herd.

July 2022 — Provincial agriculture ministers from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario voice their opposition to the federal fertilizer emissions target after the federal-provincial-territorial ag ministers’ annual meeting in Saskatoon, Sask, voicing their disappointment over a “lack of flexibility and consultation.” “We’re really concerned with this arbitrary goal,” says Saskatchewan Ag Minister David Marit.

July/August 2022 — The Canadian government’s fertilizer emissions reduction plan gains widespread coverage on mainstream and social media, with many calling it a fertilizer reduction, and some calling it a “ban.”

August 31, 2022 — Consultations close on the federal government’s discussion paper. Comments can be submitted here.

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