A new pilot project aims to reward Canadian producers for sequestering carbon in grasslands, highlighting the value of agriculture on these landscapes to the public.
Climate Action Reserve, a U.S.-based carbon offset registry, has accepted the first grassland carbon offset protocol for Canadian agriculture producers. The Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association (CFGA), which led the development of this protocol, announced the adoption at its annual conference in November. Officially known as the Canada Grassland Project Protocol, this will offer producers financial incentives for the positive conservation and management practices already used on grasslands.
Cedric MacLeod, CFGA’s executive director, says that it’s a significant advancement to have an internationally recognized method for quantifying the carbon in Canada’s grasslands.
“We look forward to working with our industry partners to really leverage the opportunities that it’s going to bring.”
MacLeod explained that this protocol, which will be evaluated in a four-year pilot program, is a key first step in monetizing the carbon sequestration of Canadian grasslands. Just as important is the opportunity to use this work to communicate the value of grassland conservation and the role Canadian agriculture plays in preserving this landscape. This comes at a time when the value of cattle on grasslands, in particular, is starting to become more widely recognized as crucial to conserving the Canadian Great Plains, one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.
Carbon markets explained
There are two types of carbon market structures, the first being the compliance-based market, where a large greenhouse gas emitter is required by law to offset its emissions by purchasing credits for reduction from a third party. The second structure is the voluntary market, where buyers purchase credits voluntarily. The Canada Grassland Project Protocol was designed and approved for the voluntary market through Climate Action Reserve.
Carbon offset systems use documents called protocols to outline the requirements for a project and how it is measured. A protocol needs to be approved by an organization that issues credits, such as a carbon offset registry. This particular protocol, which was completed with the support of CFGA and Viresco Solutions, sets out the process for quantifying and monitoring greenhouse gas reductions as a result of avoiding the conversion of grassland to cropland.
To be eligible for the Canada Grassland Project Protocol, producers need to “demonstrate clear ownership and at least 10 years of continuous grassland cover,” as stated in a CFGA press release. Tribal lands with 10 years of grassland cover are also eligible. A project can receive credits for up to 30 years.
The Canada Grassland Project Protocol was based on the second version of the U.S. Grassland Project Protocol developed by Climate Action Reserve. But this protocol was adapted to fit Canadian conditions and features a few important differences. The Canadian protocol includes wetlands, which the development committee wanted to keep in for their conservation qualities.
“We thought that was a pretty cool amendment because it allows us to look more at the full landscape model. It doesn’t add any credits at this point, but it’s recognition of it being part of the landscape and ecosystem,” says MacLeod.
Active land management is also allowed, which includes light haying, no grazing restrictions, and low-disturbance, no-till rejuvenation of forage stands.
Interest high in pilot
CFGA plans to monitor 50 sites on private land for the pilot. MacLeod says that several of the CFGA conference attendees expressed interest in participating in the pilot shortly after this announcement. Partner organizations involved will also be working to recruit participants.
“The work is primarily going to be done in Western Canada, so we’re already working with folks like Alberta Beef Producers to scope this out,” he says. “Ducks Unlimited and Nature Conservancy are also there as well, so they’re going to have clients that are going to be interested.”
However, CFGA aims to expand the protocol beyond Western Canada and evaluate it across the country on a variety of operation sizes. Provincial forage councils will play a role in this.
“The nature of the protocol is probably most applicable to some of the larger expansive grasslands that will be maintained in perpetuity there,” says MacLeod. “What I wanted to do was to understand how that applies to smaller land holds and the provinces that would have more dispersed pastures and forage lands across the landscape.”
While large ranches often come to mind with this type of project, this protocol is open to operations of all sizes, as the process of aggregating projects is important in the carbon offset market and allows producers with smaller land bases to participate and be rewarded.
“The end-users are looking to buy millions of tonnes at a time, and in order to do that, run that package, you’ve got to aggregate. So there’s no reason that a ranch with a thousand acres versus ten thousand acres wouldn’t be able to participate,” says MacLeod. “That’s really part of the learning that we’re hoping to generate from the pilot; what are some of the processes and metrics that need to see that happen?”
As this is the first protocol of its kind in Canada, there are several areas that the partners involved want to study during the pilot.
“It’s a brand new area of study and implementation,” he says. “How do we engage people? What are the roadblocks? What are the data that we’re currently keeping or the data that we need to be keeping that we’re not?”
After refining the protocol based on the results of the pilot, the goal is to eventually have it approved under the regulatory markets existing in Canada.
MacLeod believes this initiative will help producers to better tell the story of agriculture as well as create monetary value for the good production practices they already do.
“There’s two values here for agriculture. One is the dollars in producers’ jeans. If we can get paid for carbon offsets, that’s fantastic,” he says.
“The second value is the public trust, and I think we’ve been challenged in that we’re saying, ‘we’re storing this carbon, we’re keeping these grasslands intact, we’ve got all these (ecological goods and services) values.’ And that’s all fantastic, but now we’re mired in detail.”
With so much information and conflicting opinions inundating consumers, it’s no wonder the public may be feeling guilty about food and its impact on the environment.
“I think these kinds of projects help us to draw down to clear and concise facts on what is happening.”
This pilot also provides the opportunity for different sectors of the Canadian agriculture industry to collaborate on something that benefits everyone.
“I think we need to be better at collaborating in Canadian agriculture,” says MacLeod, noting tensions on the topic of grasslands being converted to annual crops. “We’re all already in the same boat but the oars aren’t moving in the same direction sometimes.
“If you take a look in Ontario, for example, the Ontario Corn-Fed Beef program, that’s supporting keeping cattle on the landscape and providing markets for both the beef and corn, a co-branded opportunity. There are chances for us to get this done. We kind of have to get out of our own way and commit to working together.”