Climate Policy’s Attack on Canada’s Farmers
In December 2020, the federal government announced its intention to establish a country-wide target to reduce absolute levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions arising from fertilizer application by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. This article will summarize the rationale for the proposed voluntary emissions reduction measures; the differing estimates of the impacts of the measures on food production and farming incomes; and the possible playout of this issue in political terms.
Based on data for 2019, emissions from the use of synthetic fertilizers in Canada accounted for 12.75 million tonnes (Mt) of GHG emissions. Synthetic fertilizers thus contributed 1.7% of Canada’s total GHG emissions of 730 Mt in 2019. Thirty per cent of 1.7% is 0.5%. Under current policy, no source of emissions, however small, is free from measures to reduce and ultimately eliminate it.
Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Marie-Claude Bibeau has indicated that actions to reduce emissions reduction will focus not on a mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizers but on voluntary “improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use”. The consultations with farmers’ groups indicated that they shared three main topics of concern: the rationale for a 30% reduction; the exclusive focus on reaching an absolute reduction in emissions as contrasted with a reduction in emissions intensity (i.e. in emissions per unit of production); and the adverse impact of the proposed target on food production and farm incomes.
Fertilizer Canada contracted for a study on how reducing nitrogen-based fertilizer use by 20% would affect food production and farm incomes. It concluded that, in 2030, the total value of lost canola, corn and spring wheat production would be $10.4 billion and the cumulative losses over the period 2023 to 2030 would be $40.5 billion. A separate study estimated that to reach a 30% emission reduction with some yield increase would require an expenditure of $4.6 billion over a ten-year time frame.
The organizations representing farmers in Canada have judged that it is pointless to challenge the merits of the emissions reduction targets, and they are seeking to accommodate the government’s agenda in the hope of moderating it and/or reducing its cost. The government, however, seems unlikely to accept a voluntary reduction in emissions that achieves less than the 30% target.
The studies done to date have not examined the effects of the proposed target on food prices for consumers or on Canada’s abilities to meet the demands of other countries for reliable and affordable food supplies. With 900,000 people in the world now facing starvation due to the effects of conflicts and supply chain problems, it seems that a real present global crisis counts for less than a possible future climate one.
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