Recent years have seen a surge in nature-based climate solutions, with the goal of including the agriculture and forestry sectors as partners in the fight against climate change. Popular among them is carbon sequestration (also known as bio-sequestration or carbon farming), a regenerative agricultural practice that captures and stores atmospheric carbon into soil.
In Canada, federal and provincial governments have signalled intentions to harness this historical practice to create new opportunities. Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s recent mandate letter explicitly tasks her to work collaboratively with producers to “develop and adopt agricultural management practices to reduce emissions, store carbon in healthy soil and enhance resiliency.”
Together with recent federal and provincial government announcements of clean technology investments — including carbon capture and agri-technology — this “green revolution” is underway. However, it still needs to be integrated into our collective climate action.
Why is carbon sequestration so important? Evidence suggests that soil has the capacity to act as a massive carbon sink, storing almost twice the amount of carbon that is in our atmosphere and vegetation combined. Between the extraordinary weather events we have witnessed within the past year and alarming predictions of droughts and water scarcity affecting high agricultural producing provinces, carbon sequestration can be a viable solution to mitigate climate change effects and enhance the resiliency of Canada’s agricultural production capacity.
In 2020, my office issued a paper exploring the opportunities for this practice in Canada. After a series of consultations with experts and industry leaders, it became apparent that the systems and incentives to encourage carbon sequestration are absent in Canada, despite strong evidence of its enormous potential. Moreover, the absence of a federal offset system currently prevents Canadian producers from adequately competing in the global agricultural marketplace.
The evidence from other comparator countries confirmed our research conclusions. In the United States for example, Maryland currently rewards farmers up to US$45-50 per acre for implementing cover cropping. Through the Growing Climate Solutions Act, the U.S. also intends to support farmers to sell carbon credits through sustainable management and operations, thereby increasing their income. In Australia, over 68 million carbon credit units have been awarded since the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act was implemented in 2011.
How do we advance these same opportunities in Canada? What can be done to incentivize carbon sequestration practices and effectively scale Canada-made innovative solutions in domestic and global markets?
First, we need to build on existing evidence and recommendations for advancing carbon sequestration, and dive deeply into areas where consensus is absent. Our research highlighted that the magnitude of carbon sequestration’s impact remains varied. This means that Environment and Climate Change Canada needs to collaborate with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development, to catalyze the development of standards for measuring soil carbon using satellite and other advanced technologies, encourage private sector methods that will support the adoption of these standards, and identify the best strategies for improving carbon capture permanence in soil.
Second, increase incentives for farmers already practising regenerative agriculture and provide financial support to reduce the cost of transition for new adopters. This would be essential for farmers especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta who already feel penalized by the federal carbon pricing regime. Complementing this action with opportunities for Canadian producers to access certifications such as the Regenerative Organic Certification will ensure that they are able to sell their products at a premium, increasing their farm-gate revenue.
Third, establish protocols for a federal carbon offset system to facilitate the creation of carbon markets. As of March 2022, the proposed Federal Greenhouse Gas Offset System is still under development by the federal government. The longer the implementation of this system is delayed, the more opportunities will be lost for innovative Canadian companies and producers who could otherwise benefit from global carbon markets.
Finally, incorporate carbon sequestration and regenerative agricultural practices into business risk management goals. The increasing occurrence of extraordinary climate events, coupled with the unfortunate reality that agricultural insurance plans are not universally embraced, increases business risks for Canadian producers exponentially. Future efforts to minimize disaster recovery costs in agriculture should require governments to champion carbon sequestration and regenerative agricultural practices not just as good climate solutions, but good risk management strategies.
Decisive action is demanded. We need to be laser focused on meaningfully improving farm-gate revenue for those farmers who increase soil organic matter. The resilience of Canada’s agriculture sector, our ability to respond to the climate crisis, and our future prosperity depends on our collective success.
This article appeared in the March 21, 2022 edition of The Hill Times.