Western Canada’s Carbon Sink Advantage

Paul Pryce

The Government of Saskatchewan recently introduced another important dynamic to the climate change discussion in Canada: the issue of carbon sinks. The Saskatchewan White Paper on Climate Change, released on October 18, 2016, highlights the role of wetlands, forests, and farmland in naturally capturing and storing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and other biological processes. Sustainable agriculture and forestry practices already contribute, and will hopefully continue to contribute, toward measured efforts to reduce Canada’s overall impact on atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

The Vancouver Declaration, adopted at the First Ministers’ Conference in March 2016, made a federal-provincial-territorial commitment to promote carbon sinks while “taking into account international best practices and accounting standards”, with an aim “to recognize their contribution to mitigating GHG emissions.” Yet, until the release of Saskatchewan’s white paper, there had been little public discussion of this issue.

Of Canada’s 160 million acres of farmland, Saskatchewan (38.8%) and Alberta (31.9%) account for the lion’s share, while Manitoba (11.3%) and British Columbia (4.1%) are also home to stretches of farmland important to the sequestration of carbon.

According to research conducted by the United States-based Rodale Institute, sustainable agriculture practices applied to the world’s 3.6 billion tillable acres could potentially sequester 40 per cent of global carbon emissions at 2013 levels. The introduction of zero-till farming in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta – a practice first developed at the University of Manitoba in 1973 – has certainly increased the capacity for western Canadian soil to sequester carbon, and has significantly reduced overall GHG emissions by the Canadian agriculture industry. Of Canada’s 160 million acres of farmland, Saskatchewan (38.8%) and Alberta (31.9%) account for the lion’s share, while Manitoba (11.3%) and British Columbia (4.1%) are also home to stretches of farmland important to the sequestration of carbon. Unfortunately, eastern Canada has been slower to adopt zero-till farming, in part due to reduced crop yields in earlier demonstrations of the practice.

Alberta has actually introduced measures to incentivize zero-till farming, allowing farmers to sell carbon offsets. When Alberta’s carbon levy was at $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent, the value to farmers ranged from $0.54 to $1.60 per acre of land farmed through zero-till practices, depending on the soil type. As the carbon levy increases to $30 per tonne by the end of 2017, these carbon offsets will also increase in value. Since Saskatchewan and Manitoba did not sign the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, it is unclear how carbon offsets for zero-till farming could be introduced in those provinces.

Regions of Saskatchewan and Manitoba feature some of the richest and most extensive swathes of wetland in the world, and surveys are still being conducted to determine exact figures on acres of wetland. Based on research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), wetlands are the most efficient biome for the sequestration of carbon, capturing approximately 306 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre annually. Policies encouraging the preservation of these wetlands could form a valuable part of any national climate change strategy.

Based on research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), wetlands are the most efficient biome for the sequestration of carbon, capturing approximately 306 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre annually.

Finally, Canada accounts for 9 per cent of the world’s forests, and a significant portion of this can be found in the Western Canadian provinces. In fact, of Canada’s 347 million hectares of forested land, 17.4 per cent can be found in BC, 11.6 per cent in Alberta, 10.1 per cent in Saskatchewan, and 7.8 per cent in Manitoba. Due to fire control efforts and Canadian advancements made in sustainable forestry, BC’s forest land now serves as the ecological lungs of the country. Elsewhere in the world, slash-and-burn agriculture destroys 500,000 hectares of Amazonian rainforest in Brazil each year, and widespread deforestation in Indonesia continues to make way for palm oil plantations.

How carbon sinks will play a role in Canada’s national climate plan is still unknown. However, there seems to have been little public awareness of the value of Canadian forests, wetlands, and farmland in the fight against climate change. In this way, Saskatchewan’s White Paper has helped to inform a complex debate, drawing attention among Canadians and international audiences to how a unique combination of geography and ingenuity is allowing the West to help tackle this phenomenon.

Paul Pryce is the Political & Economic Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a Policy Fellow at the Canada West Foundation. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Calgary and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the University of Alberta.

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