Why does Ottawa’s new climate plan ask so little from agriculture?

OTTAWA — The federal government’s new road map to slash greenhouse gas emissions anticipates significant cuts from various sectors of the economy by 2030. It says electricity can reduce its emissions by 75 per cent from 2019 levels, oil and gas by 42 per cent, and transportation at 19 per cent.

And then there is agriculture, with just one per cent.

Does the plan really expect so little from Canada’s agriculture sector?

Brent Preston doesn’t quite know — but he doesn’t like it.

The director of a group called Farmers for Climate Solutions runs a vegetable farm with his wife near Creemore, Ont. In an interview with the Star, he said his organization welcomed the plan’s commitment of $900 million in funding for climate action on Canadian farms, but was surprised and disappointed to see such a small projected cut in emissions from agriculture.

“It’s embarrassing. As a farmer you think, we should just get a pass? Are we not part of this effort? Do people not recognize that we care about this and we want to do our part?” Preston said.

“It’s super, super frustrating for me.”

According to Oliver Anderson, director of communications to Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, the one-per-cent cut projected for agriculture emissions is low for two reasons: it doesn’t include some reductions linked with the sector, and the “gains” from policies boosted through the new plan will accelerate after several growing seasons, post-2030.

As Anderson explained, the government expects about 10 megatonnes of emissions — about 14 per cent of the sector’s 2019 total — to be offset through agricultural practices that store carbon in the soil, but that these are counted toward expected emissions reductions in a different part of the plan.

Anderson also said the current projection of a one-per-cent drop does not account for the government’s stated goal of reducing emissions from fertilizer used on crops in Canada by 30 per cent by 2030.

“That approach hasn’t been developed yet,” he said, explaining why it’s not factored into the current projection.

On top of that, Anderson said emissions reductions from current federal climate policies for agriculture will accelerate after 2030, as the country drives toward its ultimate climate goal of “net-zero” emissions before 2050.

For John Barlow, a Conservative MP from Alberta and his party’s agriculture critic, the seemingly lower share of emissions reductions from the sector is fair. Citing figures from the Agriculture Carbon Alliance, Barlow pointed to how hen farmers report dropping their energy usage by 41 per cent, as well as land conservation efforts by cattle ranchers.

He also said it is more difficult and expensive for farmers to switch the heavy machinery they use to lower-emission alternatives, pointing to a lack of power grid infrastructure in some rural areas and a dearth of cleaner machines to replace “multimillion-dollar combines” used by farmers.

Barlow also argued a crucial part of the policy equation must be how the Russian invasion of Ukraine could create a huge hole in the world’s supplies of grains — one that Canada could be called upon to fill.

The World Food Program has warned the war will add to pressures pushing up food prices and exacerbate “hunger hot spots” in other war-torn areas like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen.

“If there was ever a time for Canadian agriculture to be efficient and reaching its full potential, now is the time,” Barlow said.

Still, Preston says, agriculture should be called upon to do more to slash emissions from now until 2030 — from better management of manure to the preservation of wetlands and trees.

“We think that … a realistic target would probably be something like 20 per cent or more — a lot more than the one per cent,” he said.

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