In response to the backlash it has been receiving from farmers and industry over its nitrous oxide (NO2) emissions target, the federal government was quick to reiterate that it is a goal, not a mandate.
However, whether this is an achievable goal is still up for debate. By setting a goal, the federal government has made it clear it has a lens on climate change and expects agriculture to do what it can to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If its objectives aren’t met, it is possible the current ‘goal’ could indeed become a ‘mandate.’
I don’t think this will happen anytime soon.
The fact that the feds have set up Living Labs across the country signals they understand, to some extent, agricultural practices differ across the country, and these will affect GHG emissions. In addition, the government seems open to stakeholder consultations to understand the agricultural industry’s issues concerning NO2 and other GHGs before making any hard policy decisions.
Although it may sometimes feel like agriculture is a favourite target of climate-change proponents, the federal government is asking some big corporations to disclose their climate risks.
Speaking to a group of agricultural journalists and communicators during a Canadian Federation of Farm Writers tour earlier this month, Dr. David Sauchyn of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC) said climate change is now a business issue.
“If you want to read about climate change, you don’t go to the environment section [in a newspaper],” he said. “You go to the business section.”
Sauchyn has seen a dramatic shift in who comes to PARC looking for information on climate change and the risks it might pose to their organization or business.
Formed in 2000 with support from the federal government and Prairie provinces, PARC performs scientific research that delivers practical and regionally relevant climate data and support.
Sauchyn said for the first 10 to 15 years of its existence, PARC worked mainly with provincial governments and large water utilities, such as Manitoba Hydro, who were concerned about water supplies. Then, starting about five years ago, he said things “changed completely.”
He noted that within the past month, several government agencies, a large provincial insurance company and a federal agricultural lender asked PARC to provide reports.
In fact, he said he and his colleagues were meeting representatives from Farm Credit Canada in the days following the farm writer presentation to discuss climate change risks on agriculture.
A big part of what PARC does is not only climate-change modelling and prediction but educating those who help organizations, municipalities, and governments with climate-risk decision-making.
He said that understanding the risks posed by climate change, such as flooding and droughts, is “complicated” and was “not part of the curriculum” for engineers, lawyers, accountants, and urban planners.
These are the same people tasked with advising a board of directors on how their company may be at risk, added Sauchyn.
“I know this because I teach a course on climate change. I get 10 students per year, we have 14,000 students, and 10 get exposed to climate change,” he said. “So here we are at PARC having to re-educate a whole generation of professionals.”
This is rather frightening considering that some of these organizations, particularly lenders and insurance companies, could impose penalties or withhold services altogether on farmers they feel are not meeting climate goals. Or, just as frightening, impose unreasonable or unachievable goals due to a lack of understanding.
Farmers don’t want to be in a position where they are forced to adopt certain practices or technologies to appease multiple boards of directors.
But some in the agricultural industry wonder if the standard approach of offering financial incentives and government programs to adopt climate-friendly practices on farms is enough to move the needle.
Speaking to the proposed national soil health study, Cedric MacLeod, executive director of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, along with Don Lobb, a farmer from Ontario, told the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry on Sept. 22, some sort of consequence is needed to get producers to change their ways.
“Without a stick, you’ve only got a carrot. There needs to be a penalty, in my mind,” McLeod said. “I know that’s not a really popular perspective.”