The new carbon economy can be confusing, but no-till farmers can profit from it, according to the head of one of the province’s “aggregators.”
There are 32 protocols – from wind generation to afforestation – approved as carbon offsets by federal scientists, but only one commercial option for farmers, according to Bill Dorgan, president of Agri-trend Aggregation Inc.
“The science behind this protocol is very simple,” Dorgan told attendees at the recent Canadian Association of Agricultural Retailers conference.
“An acre of a growing crop is exhibiting photosynthetic activity, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing roots, shoots and leaves which eventually become incorporated into the soil structure and become organic matter.”
While organic matter stores carbon, reducing tillage reduces soil disturbance, which reduces release of nitrous oxide from soil. Nitrous oxide builds up naturally from microbes that consume organic matter and from synthetic nitrogen.
Alberta Environment has several guidelines for measuring zero-till practices, Dorgan said. Producers are allowed up to two passes on a crop with low-disturbance openers each year. Surface applications with heavy harrows don’t count, but discretionary tillage for problems such as soil compaction are allowed.
Alberta Agriculture has divided soil regions into two areas: the Parkland region and the Dry Prairie region, which are equivalent to the boundary between the black and the dark-brown soil regions.
“If you’re farming an annually seeded crop in the Parkland region, you’re storing .16 tonnes per acre per year. In the Dry Prairie, the coefficient is .89,” said Dorgan.
Credits can be claimed back to January 1, 2002, but only until the end of this year.
But it’s the landowner, not the person farming the land, who can claim the credit.
“The government looks at carbon credits the same way it looks at surface rights,” said Dorgan. “The person whose name is on the title owns the carbon.”
Agriculture produces three of the seven gases tied to climate change: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. (Other sectors produce these gases as well, but the other four gases exclusively result from heavy industrial emissions.)
Each has a different impact.
“If one unit of carbon dioxide has one negative unit, then one unit of methane has twenty times the impact in negative terms, and nitrous oxide has about 300 times more negative impact,” said Dorgan.
All of these gases are converted into CO2E (or carbon dioxide equivalent), which is the currency used in the offset market.
In March 2008, the provincial Climate Change and Emissions Management Amendment Act into effect in Alberta.
“This isn’t a hard cap system,” said Dorgan. “It’s an intensity-based system. What that means if I’m an electricity manufacturer and I emit one tonne of greenhouse gas to create one megawatt of electricity, it’s all good.
“If I can figure out how to create two megawatts of electricity but still emit one tonne, I’ve just reduced my intensity factor by 50 per cent. Intensity factor systems don’t necessarily mean that emissions will be reduced, but productivity will be enhanced.”
Monitoring of large “final emitters” began in 2003, and their average emissions over next four years became their government approved baseline for compliance targets.
“A large final emitter is any single facility that emits more than 100, 000 tonnes in a year,” Dorgan said. “If you don’t emit that much, you’re not regulated.”
There are 105 regulated final emitters in Alberta and 27 in Saskatchewan. These final emitters were regulated to reduce their emissions from the baseline by 12 per cent. The large final emitters can reach compliance by reducing production, buying credit by paying into the technical research fund on climate change, or buy buying carbon offsets. Emitters have until March 31 each year to account for the emissions the preceding year. If they do not account for their emissions or comply with the targets, they are heavily fined.
Dorgan predicted this sort of program will soon migrate to other provinces and eventually to other parts of the world.