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It’s time to drop emissions caps and re-embrace intensity

Canada needs to champion low-emissions commodity production.
Whether it’s fertilizer use in crops or crude oil production, forcing producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the board with no concern for productivity will simply move production of those commodities elsewhere.

The federal government got smart on the firearms law.

It’s time it got smart on the fertilizer emissions target as well as its oil emissions reduction targets. It’s time to back away from caps that ignore the role of Canada as a global leader in responsible commodity production.

Canada needs to champion low-emissions commodity production in a world that desperately needs safe, secure and regulated production.

We don’t need less production from Canada. We need more. The world needs what we produce.

The firearms amendments, which would have banned assault weapons but also appeared to catch many legitimate hunting guns in its net, caused much bad political blood to be spilled across the country, became yet another poisonous culture war divide, distracted the government and the opposition parties from productive issues, and created a scorching disincentive for the government to implement focused and worthwhile gun control regulations.

The fertilizer emissions target is having much the same toxic effect. Almost nobody outside the government believes it will remain a voluntary target, but rather something that will inevitably become mandatory. Its soft introduction has made it no less divisive than the firearms amendments.

It’s true that its goal is merely to reduce emissions rather than reduce fertilizer use itself, but it’s also true that it doesn’t seem possible to substantially increase crop production while reducing total fertilizer nitrous oxide emissions by 30 percent.

The canola industry hopes to boost Canadian production to 30 million tonnes per year by 2030, and it’s hard to see this 50 percent increase in production coming with a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

It can certainly be achieved with a 30 percent per bushel reduction. The products, the application methods and the science are already there, and more is coming. But slashing fertilizer emissions while boosting canola production by 50 percent looks a lot like Mission Impossible.

The same applies to Canadian oil production. Many of the biggest Canadian fossil fuel players are slashing their per barrel emissions by double-digits, with more reductions coming down the pike, the industry says. However, the industry hopes to increase Canadian crude production and it will be hard to do that while ratcheting down emissions by the amount the federal government wants to see.

Apparently, “intensity” as a way of judging the relative emissions-ness of commodities has gone out of fashion. There is a top-level commitment to reduce Canada’s total emissions, regardless of the country’s role in supplying commodities to the global market, so a future reality of agriculture and oil emitting more is unacceptable.

This makes no sense. It is absurd to treat Canadian export commodities as if they are products of domestic demand.

Our food feeds people around the world. If they don’t get it from us, they’ll get it from somewhere else. What if that somewhere-else (Russia? Argentina? Brazil?) doesn’t do anything to reduce its emissions, has relatively higher per bushel emissions, but can sell its products for cheaper?

Crop production will stagnate here, will grow there free of greenhouse gas concerns, global emissions will surge, and the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from crops will be punted further into the future.

For oil it’s much the same. The world is clamouring for various fossil fuel products Canada produces, but it can also obtain those commodities from other places, like Russia and Venezuela.

Commodities flow to where they are demanded, as can be seen by the way American gas is ending up in Europe while discounted Russian gas and oil are looping around much of the world’s landmass to get to India and other markets that are willing to take it.

Apparently, some believe that commodity production occurs without reference to profitability. That’s one of the arguments going around against using intensity as an emissions criterion. Just because Canada can produce lower-intensity crops or oil doesn’t mean producers in higher-emitting countries will produce less if we produce more, the thinking goes.

This is dead wrong. Production responds to demand.

When farmers or oil producers can’t make money from farming, drilling, mining or refining, they cut back. Marginal acres are taken out of production. Farmers don’t invest in production-boosting technologies. Oil is left in the ground. Refineries aren’t built. There’s a lag effect, but the commodities cycle comes from long-term responses to the profitability of commodity production.

Strangling future Canadian crop or oil production with gross emissions caps will merely make foreign production more profitable and increase production in the places with the fewest regulations. If you want higher global emissions, cap Canadian production.

Canada’s farmers and other commodity producers have shown a willingness to invest in emissions reduction. Give them an intensity goal and they’ll try to meet it. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense to a farmer.

But set an irrational, hard target that doesn’t recognize the reality of the global marketplace and Canada’s place in it and you’ll get nothing but bad blood, frustration, anger, and counterproductive politics.

It’s time for the federal government to do a turnaround on intensity targets. It isn’t too late to stop this becoming yet another poisonous issue that achieves nothing but ill will, misunderstanding and alienation.