Ian Petrie

The use of “stupid” after a statement began with political strategist James Carville in 1992. He successfully steered Bill Clinton into the White House with a simple but upbeat message that it’s the economy that most Americans care about (Here’s hoping these same Americans will think differently this November). Anyway, I think it’s time to give a more upbeat message too about carbon, something that will make farmers, foresters, and the rest of us better off.

It would be difficult to be unaware of the downside of carbon. Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels has created a greenhouse effect that’s led to climate extremes, threatening food production, and the physical well-being of millions from drought, rising oceans, wildfires and so on. It’s a long list. And let’s remember something important. Yes the CO2 emissions started rising a century and a half ago but David Wallace-Wells reminds us that most of it has happened in my lifetime (I’m 69). 85% of carbon emissions has happened since the Second World War. He writes: “…. we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries, all the millennia… that came before.”

Much of the policy discussion and media coverage focuses on cutting emissions but economic and population growth in South-East Asia and the Middle East in 2017 and 2018 has outstripped the generally feeble efforts in developed economies to cut fossil fuel use. CO2 emissions continue to rise despite all of the international conferences and political rhetoric. Greta Thunberg is right. We should feel ashamed.

Here’s the more positive news. In 2020 Canada will join a few other jurisdictions in recognizing and financially supporting efforts to draw CO2 out of the air. How? Trees and plants use CO2 to grow and then store carbon in the soil, so standing forests, or permanent pastures for example are considered what’s called carbon offsets. The landowners who maintain these woodlots and pastures will get money from a new carbon trading system that the Federal government says will be in place by mid-2020.

“This kind of system will enable them to see the other side of the equation, which is actually earning income from doing the right thing” Climate Change and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told the Globe and Mail.

The money comes from heavy industrial emitters who will have to hit increasingly tougher benchmarks to reduce CO2 emissions over time. Those that can’t have to buy carbon credits which will start at $20 per tonne now, rising to $50 per tonne in 2022.

Landowners would have to commit to leaving trees standing for a long time (up to a century in the Australian version) , but it’s mature trees that remove the most CO2 so this makes sense. With the shutdown of Northern Pulp, all three Maritime provinces have a chance to develop more sustainable forestry practices. Carbon credits will give landowners one more reason to support this.

There’s good evidence that when former Prime Minister Jean Chretien enthusiastically signed up Canada to the first international agreement to cut greenhouse gases in 2005, the Kyoto Accord, there was hope that Canada’s vast boreal forests would provide sufficient carbon offsets that meeting the Kyoto targets could be done without too much sacrifice. That was never agreed to, and Canada continues to struggle to meet its commitments.

It will be interesting to see what carbon credit opportunities there are for farmers. Permanent pastures are an obvious one, and if it allows PEI farmers to make some income by protecting sloping land around waterways from erosion this would be win-win.

As well there’s a growing movement called carbon farming or regenerative agriculture. It’s a fancy name for practices most farmers are aware of and want to get back to if and when farm incomes stabilize. It includes ground covers, reduced tillage, and livestock. One of its proponents is rancher Gabe Brown. He farms on 5,000 acres outside Bismarck, North Dakota and was featured in an article in Modern Farming. It reports that he uses up to 70 different species of ground covers including pearl millet, Sudan grass, cowpeas, sunflowers and so on.

This will be familiar to many PEI farmers and researchers who are using and looking for crop rotation mixes and fall cover crops to rebuild soil organic matter levels. Organic farmers especially need these soil building practices to maintain fertility.

“All soil biology eats carbon, and that’s how nutrients cycle,” explains Brown of the network of microbes and fungi and earthworms underground. “Farmers need to think of carbon as their fertilizer, because it’s what drives a healthy system.”

And if these practices are recognized as carbon offsets and benefit from a carbon trading scheme, then again it’s a win-win. Soils improve, and farmers make a little more money.

We won’t get the details of Ottawa’s domestic carbon trading system for a few more months. There is some question about which provinces will be included at first. It will depend on whether provincial schemes to reduce industrial emissions meet federal standards. It’s expected eventually all provinces will be involved.

Farm groups like the Canadian Federation of Agriculture are trying to get the government to recognize any soil building/carbon reducing efforts farmers have made going back 10 or 15 years rather than the January 1, 2017 date the government is proposing now.

As they say about tree planting, the best time to do it is 40 years ago, the next best is now. Rebuilding soils and reducing carbon levels deserve the same urgency.

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