Managing nitrogen for carbon credits

by Heather Hager, PhD | Oct 2010

Sept. 20, 2010 – Alberta Environment is getting closer to adding another crop-based carbon credit protocol to its climate change toolbox, and Ontario agricultural groups want to know if they should pursue a similar scheme. The protocol, currently called the Nitrous Oxide Emissions Reduction Protocol (NERP), will allow Alberta growers to earn saleable carbon credits by changing their nitrogen fertilization practices. In late September 2010, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI) co-hosted a small workshop in Guelph, Ontario, to discuss the NERP and whether to encourage its implementation in Ontario. The workshop was co-sponsored by the CFI and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), and was attended by scientists and grower representatives.

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas. Its emissions from cropland depend on the form of nitrogen fertilizer used and the rate, timing, and location of application. Thus, the NERP prescribes best management practices that reduce the likelihood of nitrous oxide emissions, explains Karen Haugen-Kozyra, principal of KHK Consulting and a member of the technical steering committee that developed the NERP. “On a per-farm basis, the potential to benefit will be much better in Ontario and Quebec than on the Prairies,” she says. That’s because Eastern Canada’s wetter climate translates to higher potential for nitrous oxide emissions and thus greater emissions reductions. The NERP was designed to be used anywhere in Canada, as it estimates nitrous oxide emissions from national inventory data for soil type, topography, and climate.

At first glance, this looks like a good opportunity for growers to make a bit of money while also helping the environment. However, workshop participants questioned whether the program’s administrative costs would impede its uptake by growers. First, each grower must work with an accredited third party, i.e., a specially trained Accredited Professional Advisor, to document his/her baseline farming practices and develop and implement a nitrogen management plan. This ensures real changes in farming and actual reductions in nitrous oxide emissions. Second, it is impractical for the large corporations that are buying carbon credits to deal with hundreds to thousands of individual growers, so growers must sell their carbon credits to a middleman (an aggregator). The aggregator then sells them to the large corporations, much like the function of a grain elevator.

Of course, each of these parties requires payment for their services. With carbon credits for nitrous oxide reductions estimated to bring in about $2 to $4 per acre, according to Dr. Rob Janzen, that doesn’t leave much for the grower’s efforts. Janzen, who is vice-president Western Canada for ClimateCheck (a greenhouse gas consulting firm) and also a member of the NERP technical steering committee, admitted that growers are expected to benefit more from increased business efficiency and optimized yield per nitrogen input resulting from their changes than from the carbon market. Other benefits will include less nutrient loss to groundwater and watersheds, and better soil quality.

Nevertheless, for growers who might be interested in earning carbon credits if/when a system is introduced beyond Alberta, good record keeping is something to keep in mind. In general, carbon credit protocols require baseline data about the company’s prior practices. The NERP is no exception. As proposed, it requires three years of baseline data such as proof of crops grown, area of each crop, fallow area, rate of nitrogen applied for each crop, and yield for each crop, meaning that the grower would need to provide items such as field maps, receipts for seed and fertilizer, sale and delivery records for crops, and spreading rate records for fertilizer and manure, says Janzen.

It’s always a good idea to maintain accurate and comprehensive business and production records for future reference. However, according to Adam Hayes, OMAFRA soil management specialist, a recent OMAFRA study indicated that such record keeping by growers surveyed in Ontario was too poor to meet proposed baseline requirements. This means that growers who haven’t been keeping good records will have to wait to participate in any programs until they have documented baseline information.

The NERP and its best management practices are a small building block for future crop production. Although agriculture is a substantial greenhouse gas emitter, it is being treated differently from regulated industries that must reduce emissions because the United Nations recognizes the necessity of global food security, says Haugen-Kozyra. Nevertheless, she says that agriculture will need to become more efficient, producing more yield per unit of greenhouse gas emissions, and that won’t all be able to come from genetic yield improvements.

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