Carbon offsets not the right policy says NFU

The National Farmers Union says to instead incentivize farmers to preserve and enhance their soil

A best-case scenario for agriculture would be to get back to the pre-agriculture state of carbon sequestration, but even that’s a tall order, a new NFU report says.

[UPDATED: June 4, 2021] Carbon offsets for Canadian farmers aren’t the way to mitigate climate change in Canada, according to the National Farmers Union (NFU).

Paying farmers to store more carbon in their soil by selling credits to carbon emitters is touted as a way for farmers to earn more revenue and cut carbon emissions. But the idea that soil carbon gains can offset fossil carbon releases is “false and dangerous,” the NFU says in its submission on the federal government’s draft Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System Regulations.

“The capacity of farmers to capture carbon and improve soils is real and undebatable,” the NFU’s paper says.

“Best possible cropping and grazing practices can begin to restore soil carbon to pre-agricultural levels and thus return to farm fields a quantity of carbon nearly equal to that released from soils by past farming practices, but there is no capacity within agricultural soils to mop up the carbon torrent from past, present, or future fossil-fuel combustion or other GHG sources.”

Carbon offsets allow high emitters to keep emitting. Part of the solution is not to emit.

To that end the NFU wants strict regulations to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial emitters.

“Rather than complex, unworkable schemes to catch carbon after it is released, don’t release it,” the NFU submission says. “This is the thrust of the NFU’s advice to government.”

Figure 1. Canada’s commitments to reduce GHG emissions, vs. actual and projected emissions. photo: Charts/data from National Farmers Union Draft Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System Regulations Report

Canadian farmers should also be incentivized to conserve and replenish their soils, the NFU says.

“Farmers who utilize best possible grazing and cropping techniques can increase soil carbon levels back toward pre-agricultural levels, but the proper way to think about this sequestration is that it is carbon from soils released in the past that is being re-sequestered, not carbon from fossil fuels that will be burned in the future.” (See sidebar)

Why it matters: Farms account for about 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and soils can sequester carbon, helping reach national climate goals.

The NFU says for farmers who commit to restore soil health and increase carbon and organic-matter levels, governments should provide:

  • Free agronomic support and advice on how to do so.
  • Free soil testing for nutrients, carbon levels, water infiltration, and other soil-health measures.

Farmers should get per-acre payments for the adoption of soil-building practices, such as:

  • Cover cropping.
  • Intercropping, diversified rotations and adding perennials to rotations.
  • Transitioning some cropland to grassland or marginal land to set-aside programs.
  • Adopting rotational or other enhanced grazing systems.
  • Improving grazing land biodiversity and adding native species and legumes.
  • Utilizing compost and other natural soil amendments.
  • Wetland restoration and riparian planting.

Farmers should get government loans for:

  • Cross-fencing and water systems for livestock grazing.
  • Machinery to facilitate intercropping (grain cleaners).
  • Transition support to holistic, regenerative, agro-ecological, and other soil-building production systems.

If carbon offsets are not implemented it won’t prevent no-till farmers from getting “long-awaited carbon credits” because no-till doesn’t qualify under the federal government’s draft regulations. Credits can only be generated if reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, or increases in removals, exceed what would occur if no offset existed and no credit payments were made.

“Emission reductions or removals must be ‘additional’ to what would have occurred in a business-as-usual or ‘baseline’ scenario,” the NFU submission notes.

Figure 2. Soil carbon dynamics from cultivation and improved management practices. photo: Charts/data from National Farmers Union Draft Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System Regulations Report

Humanity is on track for 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming, which is far above the two degrees that marks extreme danger, the NFU says.

“Thus, we are on track to kill hundreds of millions of people, maim economies, scorch ecosystems, and plunge humanity into an agonizing perma-catastrophe from which it may never emerge,” its paper says. “This is the most severe crisis ever, and among the most severe imaginable. We are sleepwalking into a wood-chipper.”

Farmers that understand climate change don’t want to be complicit in so-called ‘greenwashing’ (the false impression a product or process is environmentally sound), the NFU says.

“In offset markets, when farmers take money for doing the right thing, they are receiving those payments so that others can continue doing the wrong thing — so that high-emission fossil fuel companies, utilities, fertilizer makers, and others can delay actions and minimize their investments in reducing emissions,” the NFU submission says.

When it comes to storing carbon in soil, about the best farmers can do is to put back what was released when farming began, the NFU says.

But how long it remains in just a couple of inches of soil is another matter. According to the NFU, farmers paid to store carbon will have to do so for at least 100 years.

“This 100-year requirement is both too short when compared to the millennia-long effects of releasing fossil carbon, and too long from a farm business risk perspective,” the NFU paper says.

If carbon release is deemed to be under the farmer’s control, the farmer could be liable.

“It is unclear from the draft regulations how much risk farmers may be forced to accept, but it appears that there is potential for long-term unlimited liability,” the NFU paper says, adding that it could reduce future land prices by more than the value of the offset.

Figure 3. Emissions from agriculture and the production of farm inputs, Canada, 1990-2018. photo: Charts/data from National Farmers Union Draft Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System Regulations Report

Moreover, in addition to the Prairies getting warmer, climate experts say they will get drier too, releasing more soil carbon.

“We make these points, not to foreclose offset credit revenue possibilities to farmers, but to avert a massive policy and civilizational error: staking our future on offset protocols, emissions trading, and similar schemes that are wholly unsuited to the task of rapidly and permanently reducing emissions and stabilizing the climate for farmers and all citizens of the world, The NFU says.

The NFU questions how Canada, one of the world’s biggest per-capita carbon emitters, can contemplate selling carbon credits. The same for its farmers noting in its submission agriculture’s emissions are up 22 per cent since 1990 — mostly due to a significant increase in nitrogen fertilizer use.

“The NFU urges the federal government to shelve emissions offset credit schemes and to instead use the full extent of its spending, educational, research, regulatory, enforcement, leadership, and governance powers to ensure that every sector reduces emissions at the rapid pace that atmospheric physics now demands,” its submission says. “Because Canada has dithered so long, we are now forced to act at speeds appropriate to an emergency situation.”

Soil carbon sequestration is not permanent

Below is an excerpt from the National Farmers Union’s submission on the federal government’s Draft Greenhouse Gas Offset Credit System Regulations:

‘Left in the ground, fossil fuel hydrocarbons are sequestered permanently — for millions of years. But when those fossil fuels are sought out, pumped or dug up, sold, and burned, the addition of carbon to the atmosphere/biosphere is again, essentially permanent, because a significant portion of emitted CO2 stays in the atmosphere/biosphere for more than a thousand years. It is these timescales that soil carbon sequestration must be compared.

When so compared, soil sequestration is not permanent, but temporary. When we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon that was stably sequestered deep underground for hundreds of millions of years. In contrast, when we re-sequester that carbon into soils, we put it into a place, just inches below the surface, where it will be held much less securely and probably for just decades, not for millions of years or even hundreds. Releasing carbon from oil and then putting it into soil in no way resolves the problem created by the initial release.

Key is this: Fossil carbon (from coal, oil, and natural gas) and biospheric carbon (in plants, soils, and the atmosphere) are distinct and not interchangeable for accounting, analytic, or public policy purposes. Unless extracted by energy companies, fossil carbon is wholly isolated from Earth’s other carbon pools.

In contrast, soils, air, plants, and animals continuously exchange and cycle carbon acting as a single interlinked biospheric pool. That is why it is called “the carbon cycle.”

Soil carbon sequestration serves to shift carbon from one part of the active biospheric pool to another — from the atmosphere to the soil. But burning fossil fuels adds to the biospheric carbon pool. Once that carbon is added via fossil-fuel combustion, shifting that carbon from one part of the biospheric pool to another — from air to soil — does not fix the problem that the initial addition of fossil carbon created.

Fossil fuel combustion is addition; soil sequestration represents shifting, not subtraction. In summary: a foundational error underlying soil carbon offset protocols is the treatment of temporary soil storage as offsetting permanent release.’

*Update: The previous version of this story said the NFU supports the federal government’s carbon tax. The NFU says that’s incorrect. While the NFU believes the federal government has the constitutional authority to impose a levy on carbon emissions the NFU has requested the levy charged on grain dryer fuel be rebated to farmers.

About the author


Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.



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