Climate Change and Agriculture

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 What is Climate Change? | Agriculture and Climate Change | Managing Emissions | Production | Climate Change Adaptation | Currents Initiatives | Sources | Contacts |

Climate change is both an opportunity and a risk.
- Stroh Consulting 2005. Agriculture Adaptation to Climate Change in Alberta: Focus Group Results

What is Climate Change?

The Earth’s climate is constantly changing as a result of natural processes. Most scientists who study this topic and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change point out that the current rate of climate change appears to be happening faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years. Greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere act as a thermostat controlling the earth’s climate. Concentrations of GHGs have been increasing steadily and this has been linked to human activities including industrialization and release of natural carbon sinks by cultivation and deforestation.

Why Is It Important?
Climate changes are expected to have substantial impacts on all aspects of the natural environment. Regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases, seem to be affecting natural systems on all continents and in some oceans. Scientists also predict that climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather.

What Is Being Done?
Canada has committed to reducing GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 and pledged to reduce GHG emissions on a sector basis. For example, regulations in the transportation industry require an average of five per cent renewable fuel content in gasoline. In order to achieve significant reductions, all sectors that affect GHG emissions will need to do their part.

Provinces and territories are taking steps to address climate change. In 2007, Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to pass a law requiring companies to reduce their GHG emission intensities. This created a new carbon market where over $150 million of carbon offsets have been generated by farmers making voluntary management changes by lowering GHG emissions by 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (Mt CO2e). In 2015, agriculture groups provided input to Alberta’s Climate Change Advisory Panel about transition to a low-carbon future in Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.

Attention to climate change has brought new focus to impacts of agricultural operations and its vulnerability to predicted climate change scenarios.

Farmers are on the frontline of the climate change agenda. Farmers are not only directly impacted by climate change, but are also vital in implementing solutions we need in order to adapt and mitigate.- P. Kendall 2014, World Farmer’s Organisation

The international Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) developed the concept of Climate Smart Agriculture to sustainably increase productivity, enhance resilience (adaptation) and reduce /remove GHG (mitigation) where possible. Large multi-national food companies have embraced Climate Smart Agriculture and are expecting suppliers to demonstrate that they’re making progress on achieving these goals.

Improvements To Lower Impacts
Farmers have successfully adapted to changing climates in the past. However, future increases in extreme weather need preparation to increase resilience. Farmers and agriculture industries in Alberta have already made substantial advances in lowering GHG emissions while improving efficiency, productivity and sustainability. Many farmers are using Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) that not only reduce GHG emissions, but also increase removal and storage of soil carbon, and/or replace emissions by generating renewable energy.

As examples, genetic improvements in cattle increase feed utilization while also reducing GHG emissions and feeding costs. Management that improves soil carbon levels also improves moisture infiltration and nutrient cycling, increasing resilience to changing climates. Both of these voluntary practice improvements can provide extra income in sales of carbon offsets if verifiable records are in place.

By continuing to show leadership and initiative, farmers and ranchers in Alberta can make further improvements in efficiency and resilience to a changing climate, respond to consumer’s expectations, remain competitive and capture emerging market opportunities.

Agricultural systems offer unique opportunities to manage greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors, with many options to improve productivity, sustainability and resilience to changing climates.

Figure 1. Emissions from Canadian agriculture in 2014 in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) represented 10 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions. Source: Environment Canada, 2016

Quick Facts
Figure 2 illustrates the types and proportions of emissions from agriculture, including:

Methane (CH4) is produced when carbon compounds are decomposed without oxygen. This occurs in the stomachs of ruminants, in liquid manure storages or shallow waterbodies.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is produced when nitrate is processed by living organisms in locations without oxygen. Sources of nitrogen include: fertilizers, manure piles, decomposing crop residue and cultivated soils.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced from decomposition or combustion with oxygen. Sources include on-farm fuel and energy use, as well as soils after cultivation, summer fallow, and /or land use change from perennial to annual crops. Carbon dioxide removals also uniquely occur in biologic systems when growing plants extract it from the atmosphere and store or sequester it in soils. This process is enhanced by conservation tillage, continuous cropping and / or re-establishment of perennials after annual crops as well as planting trees.

The global warming potential of methane is 25 times more than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is 298 times more than carbon dioxide. These values are used to calculate common units of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Figure 2. The three types of greenhouse gas emissions and removals in agricultural systems are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Source: Environment Canada, 2010.

Agricultural GHG In Alberta
In 2014, emissions from agriculture in Alberta totaled 22 megatonnes (Mt) CO2e. This was 8% of Alberta’s total emissions and 30% of national agricultural emissions. About half of provincial agricultural emissions are primarily from the cattle sector and the other half from the cropping sector. Soil carbon removals from agricultural practices in Alberta were 17% of provincial agricultural emissions in 2014.

Figure 3. Alberta’s agricultural GHG emissions and removals in 2014. Source: Environment Canada, 2016.

Management to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions often increases production efficiencies, while having an important impact on agricultural emissions due to their global warming potentials. The agricultural sector has a unique ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store or sequester carbon in soils, with the added benefits of increasing the resilience of soils to a changing climate. New developments related to replacing fossil fuels with biologic materials, are very efficient if the material in the waste streams is not needed for livestock uses or soil protection.

Trends In Alberta
Methane emissions from animal production in Alberta have decreased since 2005, influenced by efficiency improvments and numbers of animals. Higher yielding crops that use more fertilizer and manure have increased emissions of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Increased areas of annual crops have also increased carbon dioxide emissions from fuel use. Net soil carbon removals are stabilizing as conservation cropping becomes widely practiced.

Farmers and ranchers in Alberta have made substantial progress in lowering GHG emissions per unit of production using advanced agricultural practices that also improve sustainability. For example, practices that lower losses of nitrous oxide emissions through improved timing, placement, rate and type of product increase the potential for nitrogen uptake by crops. Other summaries in this series provide more information about practices to manage GHG emissions by increasing efficiencies.

The world is looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and driving new initiatives around the globe. Farmers and ranchers in Alberta are taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture represent only 8% of Alberta’s and 10% of Canada’s total emissions. Emissions are small on an area or animal basis, but can accumulate over large areas and numbers of livestock.

Alberta’s farmers and ranchers have many unique opportunities to address climate change through their capacity to not only reduce, but also remove (sequester) and replace fossil fuel emissions. Many of these opportunities also have co-benefits of efficiency improvements and cost savings.
Farmers and ranchers in Alberta have already made substantial progress in lowering GHG emissions using advanced agricultural practices. In 2011, the GHG emission intensity per kilogram of live weight Canadian beef was 14% lower than in 1981 due to increases in reproductive efficiencies, as well as improved average daily gain, slaughter weights and crop yields. These efficiencies have the added cost savings benefit of reducing breeding herd requirements by 29% and land base by 24% as compared to 1981. Further efficiency improvements are expected in new technologies, some of which are developing in the feed additive and fertilizer industries.

Alberta’s carbon market is the first of its kind in North America to offer opportunity for farmers to sell offsets from voluntary improvements that lower GHG emissions. Close to $170 million of agricultural offset sales in Alberta reduced emissions by 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) since 2001. Knowledge about keeping verifiable records of management is transferrable to other emerging environmental markets.

Simple, streamlined approaches to record keeping need to be developed by farm businesses to demonstrate farm-scale management improvements. More research is needed to understand amounts of possible GHG reductions, costs and benefits of management changes, as well as strategies to overcome adoption barriers. Farm-scale pilot studies are also needed to fill information gaps, support policy and sound business decisions and communicate effective strategies.

About half of Alberta’s agricultural emissions are from crop production, including fertilizer use and tillage. Nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer and manure in Alberta’s cool, dry climate are lower than in other areas since crops require fewer nutrients and shorter times where wet conditions result in nitrous oxide emissions. Management to optimize timing, placement, product and rate of nutrient use helps to further reduce emissions. Alberta’s climate is very well suited to storing soil carbon removed from the atmosphere by growing crops. Conservation farming and increased perennial cropping have helped to reduce net emissions from agricultural operations, while increasing the resilience of soils to climate change by improving quality. For more detailed information please see:


About half of agricultural emissions in Alberta are from digestion processes by ruminants and manure decomposition. Strategies to lower emissions includes shortening time to harvest, and improving feed quality. Alberta researchers are international leaders in selecting genetic traits to improve feed efficiency in beef cattle, which lowers emissions and costs. Manure emissions are affected by the type of storage, field application rates and methods, as well as soil conditions. Perennial feed crops store and conserve significant amounts of soil carbon. For more information visit: Energy
Increased energy efficiency reduces emissions and gains productivity improvements, while lowering costs. Biogas can be generated from anaerobic digestion of agricultural feedstocks. The resulting digestate is a nitrogen-rich material that can be used as a fertilizer. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable bioenergy reduces emissions from the extraction and combustion of hydrocarbon fuels.

Other Greenhouse Gas Factsheets CLIMATE CHANGE ADAPTATION
In 2005, Agriculture and Forestry initiated one of Alberta’s first studies to learn whether farmers and ranchers were concerned about recent global climate patterns and more extreme weather events. Fifty-three agricultural producers with a cross-section of agricultural interests were asked to describe how they have dealt with the risks and opportunities from changing climates and what they intend as longer term strategies. The Agriculture Adaptation to Climate Change in Alberta: Focus Group Results outlines strategies that farmers and ranchers can use to bounce back from changes in Alberta’s climate.

Adaptation Factsheets Paper copies of these free booklets can be ordered by contacting the Environmental Stewardship Division of AF. You may call from anywhere in Alberta toll-free by dialing 310-0000 followed by 780-422-4385.

Carbon offsets
Carbon credits or offsets generated from voluntary practice improvements in the agriculture sector are a compliance option for large GHG emitters in Alberta under the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation. To facilitate the offset investment in Alberta, Agriculture and Forestry (AF), industry and other government departments are collaborating to develop carbon offset quantification protocols. These government approved quantification protocols describe the:
i) policy basis for identifying practice improvements that are "above and beyond business as usual",
ii) science basis for GHG emission reduction and/or removal from a particular practice change as well as
iii) verifiable records required to prove that the practice improvement has occurred.

AF has actively been developing and supporting a number of standardized offset protocols for producers who want to create offset credits for sale in the carbon market. For an update on opportunities in the Alberta Carbon Market where offset sales of over 170 M for emission reductions of 13 Mt of CO2e have resulted from management improvements related to reduced tillage, conservation cropping, biogas from manure, and fed cattle click here.

GHG Research
Since 2000, AF has been actively conducting agricultural related GHG research. Some of this research has been studying GHGs from livestock and GHGs from various crop and tillage management practices. See below for a description of projects and publications that AF staff and partners are currently involved in related to GHGs and climate change.

In 2003, AF and the University of Alberta published a report titled Development of a Farm-Level Greenhouse Gas Assessment: Identification of Knowledge Gaps and Development of a Science Plan. The first chapter of this report focuses on the current state of knowledge of agricultural GHG research and identifies preliminary gaps in our knowledge. The second chapter contains an Alberta-based agricultural GHG inventory for 2001, while the third chapter describes the Agricultural Science Plan which prioritized research in the areas of soil and crops, livestock, land use and energy and whole farm systems. All of these three chapters clearly identify agricultural GHG research gaps and recommend there is currently not enough information available to produce on-farm assessments that will accurately reflect the GHG emissions of a typical farm within a reasonable range of error. Although this plan is not current, it is still very relevant due to the time and resources that are needed to address agricultural GHG emissions. This report is available for download here as a pdf file (size 1.46 MB).

Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan. See:

Asgedom H. and E. Krebab. 2011. Beneficial management practices and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions on the agriculture of the Canadian Prairie: a review. 2011. Agronomy Sust. Developm. 31:433-451,

Beauchemin, K. A., Janzen, H.H., Little, S.M., McAllister, T.A. and McGinn, S.M. 2011. Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from beef production in western Canada – Evaluation using farm-based life cycle assessment. Animal Feed Science and Technology. 166-167: 663-667

Desjardins, R.L. 2013. Climate Change—A Long-term Global Environmental Challenge. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 77 pp. 247 – 252.

Environment Canada. 2016. National Inventory Report 1990-2014: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. At

Food and Agriculture Organization. 2010. “Climate-Smart” Agriculture: Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Government of Canada Announces Pan-Canadian Pricing on Carbon Pollution, Oct 3, 2016. See:

H.H. Janzen, R.L. Desjardins, P. Rochette, M. Boehm and D. (eds.) 2008. Better Farming Better Air: A Scientific Analysis of Farming Practices and Greenhouse Gases in Canada. WorthAgriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Legesse, G.A., Beauchemin, K.A., Ominski, K.H., McGeough, E.J., Kroebel R., MacDonald, D., Little, S.M. and McAllister, T.A. 2015. Greenhouse gas emissions of Canadian beef production in 1981 as compared with 2011. Animal Production Science.

Lemmen, D.S., Warren, F.J., Lacroix, J., and Bush, E., editors (2008): From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007; Government of Canada, Ottawa, ON, 448p.

Liebig, M.A., Morgan, J.A., Reeder , J.D., Ellert, B.H., Gollany, H.T., and Schuman, G.E. 2005. Greenhouse gas contributions and migitaiton potential of agricultural practices in northwestern USA and Western Canada. Soil and Tillage Research, 25-52.

United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC). 2009. Fact sheet: Climate change science. Available online at

IPCC. 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of 0-Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)].Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. At:

For more information about GHGs and climate change in agriculture please contact:

Sheilah Nolan
Climate Change Specialist
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3719
Tom Goddard
Senior Policy Advisor

Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3067

For more information about lowering agricultural GHG and climate change related research and activities, please contact:

Dr. Vern Baron
Research Scientist
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
Phone: 403-782-8109
Dr. John Basarb
Beef Research Scientist
Livestock Research Branch
Roger Bryan
Manager, Environmental Innovation
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3616
Richard Heikkila
Senior Economic Analyst
Economics Branch
Phone: 780-422-4088
Len Kryzanowski

Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-422-1252
Kerrianne Koehler-Munro
Environmental Program Specialist
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3628
Paul Jungnitsch
Carbon Offsets Agrologist
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3801
Jason Price
Project Manager, Energy Program
Environmental Extension and Programming Branch
Phone: 780-427-4181
Bob Riewe
Irrigation Modeling Specialist
Water Resources Branch
Phone: 403-381-5868
Brent Swallow
Department Chair, Environment and Development Economist
University of Alberta
Dr, Susan Markus
Beef Research Scientist
Livestock Research Branch
Phone: 403-742-7570
Jeff Bell
Industry Development Officer
Bio-Industrial Opportunities Branch
Phone: 780-638-3158
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For more information about the content of this document, contact Sheilah Nolan.
This document is maintained by Nicole Huggins-Rawlins.
This information published to the web on March 2, 2005.
Last Reviewed/Revised on May 8, 2017.