For this article, we are going to focus on agriculture in the context of emissions generated by on-farm fuel use, crop production, and animal production.
According to Jenn Packer, Decarbonization Advisor, Resilience and Sustainability for WSP in Canada, some of the biggest opportunities for short-term emissions reductions in the agriculture industry will be recognized where few regulatory, economic, or technology barriers currently exist.
Biogas, from manure or other organic sources, can be utilized to produce green energy to power farming operations, or upgraded to renewable natural gas and blended into a natural gas pipeline. In Alberta, practices recognized under the Alberta Offset System, such as conservation cropping and nutrient stewardship, can also provide notable reductions in emissions produced in agriculture activities.
Mitigation of emissions may be achieved through reduction in demand on a per-capita basis of carbon-intensive products, such as those from livestock contributing to enteric fermentation emissions, manure emissions, and soil management emissions associated with feed production.
Vertical farming can also provide emissions reductions, especially where the building energy is from renewable sources. In a controlled environment, yields increase, and pest control is minimal, with less need for chemical applications that can have a negative impact on the overall environment.
Packer sees advancements in green energy, and how it can be harnessed to create chemical fertilizers using less carbon-intensive methods.
The continued development of green hydrogen, produced using electrolysis and renewable electricity, can result in a near-carbon-neutral energy carrier. Green hydrogen can then be used to produce ammonia (NH3) by mixing nitrogen from the air with hydrogen. Fertilizer is then manufactured from the ammonia. In contrast, the conventional process uses natural gas to produce hydrogen, in an extremely carbon dioxide (CO2) intensive process.
The continued developments in the production of biochar also offers an opportunity for carbon reductions in agriculture in the years ahead. Biochar is produced from heating organic materials like crop residues, grass, woodchips or manure in a high temperature, low oxygen process known as pyrolysis. When applied to soils, it has the potential to increase soil carbon content. Producing biochar and applying it to soils can reduce carbon emissions and may also provide additional agricultural benefits such as increased soil fertility and crop productivity. Carbon is sequestered through the long-term transfer of carbon from organic matter into biochar, which would otherwise decompose naturally and emit carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. Additionally, biochar production also creates a syngas and bio–oil, which can be used as energy alternatives to fossil fuels. Lastly, the enhanced soil quality reduces emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer needs and application.
There are several emerging solutions that could take hold as new solutions are introduced. However, green hydrogen and biochar, at this stage, are showing significant potential in helping to lower emissions in the sector.
A national net zero pathway includes investment in low carbon fuels, which the agriculture sector has a key role to play in supporting. Biofuels from crops, and renewable natural gas from manure, are important fuel resources to be developed as part of Canada’s low carbon economy.
Biodiversity and other co-benefits associated with decarbonization solution in the agriculture sector are hugely important as we look beyond net zero GHG emissions to sustainable development goals. Biodiversity banking, recognizing voluntary biodiversity offset credits has been receiving growing interest globally with the UK leading in biodiversity offset crediting.
The agriculture industry currently serves as a source of emissions, but it also holds the potential to be a carbon sink according to Packer. Agriculture can be used to achieve negative emissions through a variety of farming techniques, including no-till planting, enhancing soils with cover crops, making better use of crop residues, and mixing trees with agricultural land. However, negative emissions gains are only legitimate when the carbon stays sequestered.
As Packer points out, lowering emissions in the sector is not without its hurdles to overcome. There are significant challenges in ensuring that the carbon sequestration attributed to nature-based solutions are real and verifiable. While globally agreed methodologies exist for carbon sequestration activities, there is potential for inaccurate estimates or attribution that raise concerns whether this kind of sequestration should be relied on as a way of reaching net zero targets. Some of these concerns stem from the fact that while, for example, geological carbon sequestration using carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies can be measured, sequestration from nature-based solutions can often only be estimated.
Permanence is another concern. Credible estimates of sequestration must ensure that the carbon is stored permanently and that any leakage is accounted for. Carbon sequestered in biomass can “leak” or return to the atmosphere when biomass dies off or is burnt by wildfire (drought and wildfires are both expected to increase due to climate change).
The agriculture industry presents real opportunities for lowering Canada’s emissions footprint. With key barriers removed, emissions reductions can occur, and farmland can be best utilized for carbon capture and sequestration. And with the continued development of low carbon fuels from agricultural byproducts, the sector can help provide solutions for emissions reductions that go beyond the farm and onto the road or into the factory.
To learn more about how WSP in Canada can help the agriculture industry reduce its carbon footprint, check out our Net Zero Emissions Pathways page or reach out directly to Jenn Packer.