How can we make significant progress on Canada’s climate goals without threatening the economy or further alienating oil-producing provinces?
For too long, conversations around climate change and policy in Canada have framed the issue as a choice between lesser evils — a struggling economy or a critically ill planet. In reality, the choice is not so extreme. There are solutions the government could enact that have the potential to meet Canadians’ demand for real action on climate change while also bolstering the economy. Trudeau would do well to look to Canada’s innovation sector to find them.
Fully 63% of Canadians who voted in the federal election cast their ballots for parties with strong climate policies centred around cutting emissions through a carbon tax. Reducing emissions is a laudable goal, and one we should continue to pursue through initiatives like investing in public transit, greening our buildings and incentivizing people to use fewer fossil fuels, but we simply will not meet our climate targets by cutting emissions alone. We are far too late in the game to avoid the worst of potential climate change perils through harm reduction alone. We need to foster solutions.
Even under a best-case scenario, current projections show Canada will miss its Paris Agreement target of reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 by more than 10%. Given that reality, Trudeau’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 is all but impossible if we stay the current course. And even if Canada could meet its targets, it is still a blip on the radar of what’s needed to solve the problems facing the planet on a global level.
To truly reduce Canada’s carbon footprint and make a global impact, we need solutions to draw carbon out of the atmosphere — and ideally in a way that benefits the earth and the economy. This is possible, and we can do this by applying made-in-Canada technologies to better manage a natural resource as ubiquitous as it is overlooked — not oil or coal, but our farmlands and soils.
For all the focus on cutting Canada’s carbon output, little attention has been paid to the fact that this country, including heavier emitting provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, is literally covered in farmland that has one of the best carbon-storage substances available: soil.
The earth’s soil can store more carbon than the earth’s atmosphere can hold. Importantly, increasing carbon content in soil is hardly out of reach. In Canada, a simple change to the way we farm could have an outsized impact on our carbon storage in soil. If scaled globally, it could be enough to turn back the clock on climate change by years.
After all, when you think of highly productive farmland, one of the first things you think about is rich, black soil. Healthy soil is black because of the high carbon content, or soil organic carbon (“SOC”), a key building block to plant life and plant health. Dark, rich soils can be very high in soil carbon, as much as 10% SOC or more. In poor or heavily exploited soils, SOC can be less than 1%. The average across global conventional farms is estimated to be 2%.
According to author and researcher Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown, currently an estimated 108 million acres of farmland are organic or regenerative. Good organic farms can get up to SOC to 5-6%. Impressive regenerative farms can have be north of 10-12%. Improving the global SOC average from 2% to 4% on the world’s farmland, could reduce 78.5 billion tons of CO2-equivalents from the atmosphere, and that would be just getting started.
Those are big numbers in comparison with Canada’s total annual carbon emissions of 716 million tons of annual emissions of 37 billion tons. If this could be scaled across all global farmland, the impact would be many times that—enough to turn back the clock on climate change by years.
And the value is not only sustainability, the economic impact is significant. Each 1% increase in the carbon content of soil accounts for 8.5 tons of carbon stored per acre. And each ton of carbon sequestered in soils significantly increases farm yields, for wheat that would mean 8-16 kilograms more yield for the farmer, and 4-16 kilograms more per acre for corn, increasing farm profits and productivity. Converting 100 million acres to soil regenerative practices is estimated to cost up to C$8-10 Billion, yet that could generate around $280-300 billion CAD in returns by 2050 -- not a bad investment.
US Senator Pat Roberts, quoting a former colleague, summed it up nicely: "More carbon in the atmosphere: bad. More carbon in the soil: good."
Introducing efficient, reliable, real-time methods to measure SOC coupled with an economic incentive for farmers to sequester more carbon and invest in soil regenerative agriculture practices could turn Canadian farms into carbon sinks, while at the same time increasing the nutrient content of our soils and fostering a more sustainable, healthier and profitable food system.
Farmers have the opportunity to be saviours in turning the world back from climate change, while improving the productivity of their farmlands. Enabling this transition comes down to bolstering Canadian farms with Canadian innovation. Using cleantech to transform agriculture and food production is a concrete solution—one Canada can lead the world in, while making a significant global impact. If Canada can demonstrate success across our 160 million acres of farmland, we can lead by example and help the world scale this globally.
Already, companies across the country are developing sophisticated technologies designed to help us work with nature to improve our agricultural output while reducing our environmental impact. Tools like smart sensors, imaging and algorithms informed by data science and machine learning can suggest better interventions for blight, pests and diseases. These technologies enable us to manage farms more efficiently and intelligently, a marked change from disruptive interventions that bathe the land in harmful chemicals, deplete soils, and leave fields barren — all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
But applying home-grown technologies to Canada’s agricultural sector could do far more than just make a serious dent in Canada’s carbon footprint. It's an opportunity to diversify and revive the economy in provinces struggling to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. Deeper still, it promises to reconcile the planet vs. progress debate and help unite a country in the midst of a bitter political divide.
Beyond that, investing in Canada’s clean technologies has the potential to establish us as climate leaders on the world stage. Agriculture is just one example of an area where Canadian innovation can make an outsized impact on our economic and environmental goals. Other companies are working on technologies to better manage our forests, our oceans, and even pull carbon from the air to produce clean transportation fuels.
There is no Silicon Valley of cleantech. If we play our cards right, it could be Canada. We have the potential, right now, to become a world leader in agriculture tech and clean technologies writ broad, and create an economy based on cultivating our intellectual properties rather than just tapping our natural resources. To get there we need consistent, concerted investment and support from the Canadian government.
As Trudeau looks ahead to his next term as Prime Minister, the time is right to take bold action to support made-in-Canada solutions that have global applications. He can do this in concrete ways by:
Taking bold action now, backed by government support, will not only help us meet our climate goals, it could help us come together and unify as a country and provide much needed global leadership. Ultimately, it will determine whether Canada will be seen as a leader or a follower on what is certain to be not just the defining issue of the next federal government, but of our lifetimes.
The irony is that capitalizing on this opportunity will take a very “un-Canadian” approach. We don’t have time to sit back and cautiously observe what the rest of the world is doing to mitigate climate disaster. We need to move now, with conviction, to establish a market presence in a world that is rapidly acknowledging it must find alternatives to business as usual if we are to preserve a high quality of life.