Carbon offset programs are not a new concept to many Canadians. Individuals and organizations have been purchasing carbon credits to mitigate their own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for years, and the use of carbon offset programs by major industrial emitters is an accepted business practice.
But carbon offset programs have become more relevant to agricultural producers in Alberta, with the introduction of the Nitrate Oxide Emissions Reduction Program (NERP).
In 2007, Alberta created a market for carbon offsets through its Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, which requires regulated facilities to reduce their annual emission intensity by 12 per cent, based on their 2003 to 2005 baseline. One way the managers of these facilities can comply with these regulations is to purchase credits under the NERP guidelines.
The NERP protocol
“The NERP protocol supports an important model of improved use of nitrogen fertilizer that is based on sound science, is above and beyond business as usual, and is verifiable using on-farm records,” explains Sheilah Nolan, climate change specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, which assisted with the protocol review of NERP. “This means that farmers have an opportunity to get paid for on-farm practices that reduce GHG emissions, based on government approved carbon offset protocols.”
Developed by the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI), the International Plant Nutrition Institute and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, among others, NERP aims to “optimize yield in the context of social, economic, and environmental sustainability,” and “focus on comprehensive, precise, and landscape-directed management of nutrients” in an agricultural context.
According to Clyde Graham, vice-president of Strategy and Alliances with CFI, the institute’s involvement with NERP started from the ground up. CFI funded and coordinated the technical work of designing the protocol, “and our ongoing role is to provide training that’s required for people to approve the projects,” Graham explains. “The other aspect is that we’re providing ongoing scientific research to support and refine the coefficients for reductions under NERP.” NERP also had the input of soil scientists, provincial and federal governments and research staff, and the farming community.
Key to NERP is nitrogen stewardship under the 4R management plan (“Right Source, Right Rate, Right Place, Right Time”) but the protocol is arranged into three levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced, which offer different levels of requirements for farmers hoping to sign up.
“The basic level is based on some fairly routine best management practices which I think a lot of growers could get to,” says Graham. “The record-keeping can seem to be a bit daunting but I think it’s the initial entry that takes a bit of time. Once growers do it, it becomes fairly routine as part of their practices.”
The Basics of NERP
How does NERP work, and who is involved?
Farmers first submit documentation to a developer, then work with an Accredited Professional Adviser to create a 4R management plan. The plan is submitted to the developer, who collects several farmers’ plans and submits them to a verifier.
Ultimately, says Graham, “the offset projects are commercial/financial arrangements between the aggregator, the farmer and the customer who buys the offset. …The NERP sets out the general rules about how things should be done, but how they are done is a business decision between the various parties in the transaction.”
According to Graham, there are many benefits for farmers looking to employ NERP. One of the key benefits is improved management practices, he says, but the value doesn’t stop there.
“At the heart of the NERP is the creation of more nitrogen efficiency, so really the farmer should be getting better value for every dollar he spends on fertilizer,” says Graham. “There’s an associated benefit in record-keeping and management that is required by NERP, which will help farmers become more profitable generally.”
Nolan adds other benefits, particularly increased efficiency — “for example, greater yield with better use of nitrogen fertilizer” — and feed savings for the livestock sector. But she also says record-keeping will help build farmers’ awareness of the types of records required to access other environmental markets, such as carbon footprinting and water footprinting. “Agriculture is a diffuse source of GHG emissions, so the payments aren’t huge, but it makes sense when you think of it in terms of getting paid to learn about record keeping and to make improvements. It’s not big money but it builds on the other co-benefits,” says Nolan.
“I think that it would be worth every grower’s while to have a look at the program and see if it would meet their needs,” says Graham. “It may look a little complex at first blush but I think any grower working with a professional advisor who has an interest in improving their fertilizer value but also wants to do something good for the environment should explore the NERP and see if it would work for them.”
Protocols in action
The government of Alberta views carbon offsets as a means of helping all Albertans, including farmers, address the issue of climate change, according to Nolan. “We’re very encouraged to see the NERP protocol, and others like it, being used by the agricultural industry to create offsets,” she says. “The government sees opportunity for innovation here by encouraging people to make new management improvements.”
Nolan says there are 10 approved protocols in Alberta that could be applied to the agricultural sector, including those related to biomass, biofuel and tillage. The Tillage System Management Protocol, according to Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development website, “is written for generating carbon offsets that arise from the direct and indirect reductions of GHG emissions through implementing no-till and reduced till systems on agricultural lands.”
The tillage protocol has been used in Alberta since 2007. “Since 2007, agricultural offsets using the tillage protocol have been being bought by regulated companies and used to meet 20 per cent of their reduction requirements,” says Nolan, adding that the tillage protocol was revised in 2012 to reflect even more stringent verification standards which apply to all of the protocols, not simply those that are relevant to the agricultural sector.
Interest in agricultural offset programs is growing across Canada. The government of Saskatchewan is looking at implementation of NERP, and CFI, according to Graham, is having ongoing discussions with the governments of Ontario and Manitoba about the program. “These things always take longer than you hope but we do think that in this season and the years ahead this will accelerate and become more widely adopted,” he says. †