Climate Change and Agriculture

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 What is climate change? | What are the Greenhouse Gases | Why should we be paying attention? | Emissions from Agriculture | Opportunities for agriculture | Greenhouse Gas factsheets | AF current initiatives in the areas of greenhouse gases and climate change | Energy | Contacts

What is Climate Change?

The Earth’s climate is constantly changing as a result of natural processes. The atmosphere has an effect like a greenhouse on the Earth’s temperature. The energy from the sun reaching the earth is balanced by the energy the Earth emits to space. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) trap some of the energy the Earth releases to space. The GHGs in the atmosphere act as a thermostat controlling the Earth’s climate. Without this natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature on Earth would be -18˚C instead of the current +15˚C. Therefore, life as we know it would be impossible.

The majority of the world’s scientists studying this topic agree that the current rate of climate change is faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years because of human activity. Human activities affect GHG levels by introducing new sources of emissions or by removing natural sinks, such as forests. Sources are processes or activities that release GHGs; sinks are processes, activities or mechanisms that remove GHGs. The levels of GHGs are determined by a balance between sources and sinks.

Since the industrial revolution, concentrations of GHGs have been increasing steadily as a result of industrialization (increasing sources of emissions) and deforestation (declining sinks). Between 1970 and 2004 several key GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2 ), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulphurhexafluoride (SF6), increased by 70 percent. The scientific evidence for this is very solid. In its fourth assessment report since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that climate change is already happening and can be primarily attributed to human activity.

Global climate change will have substantial impacts on the environment including water resources, fisheries, forests, wildlife and ecosystems. Regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases, are already affecting different natural systems on all continents and in some oceans. Scientists also predict that climate change will increase climate variability.

What are the Greenhouse Gases?

The major GHGs in our atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), halocarbons (HFCs), and nitrous oxide (N2O). GHGs differ in their ability to absorb the radiation leaving the Earth. The ability of a gas to trap heat depends on its capacity to absorb and re-emit radiation and on how long the gas remains in the atmosphere.
In order to compare emissions from different sources, the global warming potential of each gas is compared to the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. For example, the global warming potential of one tonne of methane is 21 times more potent than one tonne of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period (Table 1).

Table 1. Global Warming Potentials - Source IPCC, 1996*

Relative Warming Potential
(CO2 equivalents)
Carbon dioxide
Nitrous oxide
* IPCC published the Global Warming Potentials for CH4 and N2O as 23 and 296 in 2001, and 25 and 298 in 2007; however the above GWPs are still used to be consistent with the National Accounting Frameworks.

Why Should We Be Paying Attention?

Canada and roughly 180 other countries adopted an international agreement in 1997, called the Kyoto Protocol, which committed them to reduce GHG emissions that contribute to climate change. Recent negotiations for global GHG reductions occurred this past year in Copenhagen (Denmark). Canada pledged to take action and reduce GHGs on an industry-by-industry basis. For example, regulations in the transportation industry have been put in place that require an average of 5 percent renewable fuel content in gasoline. These and other actions will assist Canada in reaching its goal to reduce GHG emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Attention to climate change has brought new focus to agriculture. Agriculture affects GHG levels and it is also vulnerable to the predicted impacts of climate change. The agricultural industry already has some tools such as direct seeding and other ‘beneficial management practices’ that can reduce GHG emissions or capture and store carbon.

Additionally, the agricultural industry will need to prepare for and adapt to climate change. For more information on adaptation to climate change in Alberta see Bulletins in this series entitled “Climate Change in Alberta” and “A Changing Climate for Agriculture - How Can We Prepare?”

Emissions from Agriculture

In Canada, the GHGs emitted by the various industry sectors are calculated and recorded annually in the National GHG Inventory. According to Environment Canada, agricultural emissions accounted for 62 megatonnes (Mt) or 8.4 percent of the total 2008 GHG emissions for Canada (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Industry Sector for 2008 (in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e)).

In contrast, emissions from fossil fuel production, processing, transmission, and distribution within the energy industry in Canada accounts for about 81 percent of the total amount of GHG emitted. Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major GHG emitted by other industries, agriculture mainly emits methane (CH4) from livestock enteric fermentation and nitrous oxide (N2O) from inorganic fertilizer and manure use. In 2008 the agricultural industry contributed about 70 percent of total Canadian N2O emissions and about 26 percent of total Canadian CH4 emissions.

Of Canada’s 2008 total GHG emissions from agriculture, 31.7 percent was emitted in Alberta (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agriculture for 2008.

Comparing Alberta’s various industry sectors, the majority of Alberta’s GHG emissions originate from the energy sector. In 2008, Alberta’s agricultural industry accounted for approximately 8 percent of the province’s total GHG emissions, while energy accounted for 85.6 percent, and industrial processes contributed 5.5 percent.

The three main sources of Alberta’s GHG emissions from agriculture as reported for that same year were soils (44.5%), enteric fermentation (43.5%), and manure (11%) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Alberta’s GHG Emissions from Agriculture for 2008 by Source (in CO2e).

Opportunities for Agriculture

Agriculture is in a unique position because of its ability to ‘capture’ atmospheric carbon in growing crops and store a portion of that carbon in soil organic matter. This process is referred to as carbon sequestration or carbon storage. Agricultural soils can be a source (by emitting CO2) or a sink (by storing CO2) for CO2 depending on soil management practices. As the Canadian Prairies occupy over 54 million acres of Canada’s farmland, agriculture can make a significant contribution to meeting Canada’s GHG reduction targets.

Conservation farming practices, such as direct seeding, no-till farming and good fertilizer placement, have increased soil organic carbon levels helping to ‘offset’ GHG emissions and reduce the industry’s net contribution. Reducing GHG emissions simply means that crops and livestock are raised more efficiently, thus reducing wasteful input losses like nitrogen (N2O) and energy (CH4). Adoption of conservation practices will not only help to reduce GHG emissions but can also benefit water, soil and air quality.

Recently the Government of Alberta passed legislation that ultimately created a market for carbon trading. Although Alberta is the first province in Canada to do so, other provincial governments and the federal government have indicated that they are developing offset systems that will be complimentary to Alberta’s.

The agricultural industry has an opportunity to increase revenues by sequestering carbon and selling the emission removal credits. Currently there are several protocols including 10 for agricultural practices available that guide the quantification and verification of carbon sequestration to ensure commodity quality and standardization. Click here for more information.

Greenhouse Gas Factsheets

The following AF factsheets provide information on various topics related to the science behind GHGs, climate change, and different agricultural production practices that affect greenhouse gas emissions:

Bulletin #1: Greenhouse Gas Emissions of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Industry (pdf file size 618 KB)

Bulletin #2: Climate Change, Greenhouse Gases and Agriculture (pdf file size 520 KB)

Bulletin #3: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Alberta's Livestock Industry (pdf file size 314 KB)

Bulletin #4: Alberta's Agri-food Processing Industry and its Greenhouse Gas Emissions (pdf file size 520 KB)

Bulletin #5: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Alberta's Cropping Industry (pdf file size 599 KB)

Bulletin #6: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Composting of Agricultural Wastes (pdf file size 690 KB)

Bulletin #7: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading and Agriculture Risk and Opportunities (pdf file size 992 KB)

Bulletin #8: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Agroforestry (pdf file size 641 KB)

Bulletin #9: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Renewable Energy (pdf file size 1.25 MB)

Bulletin #10: Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Range and Pasture Management (pdf file size 1.32 MB)

Bulletin #11: Manure Management and Greenhouse Gases (pdf file size 1.28 MB)

Bulletin #12: Targeting Greenhouse Gas Research for Agriculture (pdf file size 968 KB)

Two new factsheets are now available for download, as follows:

Climate Change in Alberta (pdf file size 203 KB)

A Changing Climate for Agriculture - How Can We Prepare (pdf file size 169 KB)

AF Current Initiatives in the Areas of Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

Quantification protocol development for offset investment
Carbon credits or offsets generated from the agriculture sector are a compliance option for large GHG emitters in Alberta under the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation. In Alberta as of June 2007, there became a provincial demand for offset credits. To facilitate the offset investment in Alberta, ARD, industry and other government departments are collaborating in working towards the development of quantification protocols. These government approved quantification protocols outline the GHG emission reduction and/or removal from a particular practice change. ARD has actively been developing and supporting the creation of standardized offset protocols for producers who want to create offset credits for sale in the carbon market. A key outcome of the quantification protocol processes are to make certain that the protocols are based on transparent, science based standards, withstanding scientific reviews from leading Canadian, US, and if need be, international scientists. For an update on the Alberta Carbon Market click here.

GHG Management Practices Booklets for Cow Calf and Hog Producers
These booklets provide information on different management strategies associated with the reduction and removal of GHGs from the atmosphere on the farm. Reducing a farm’s GHG production can help to reduce the farm’s environmental footprint, improve production efficiencies, and may offer a return on investment.

Cow/Calf Operations and Greenhouse Gases
This booklet examines herd health, grazing management, feed management and manure management. The booklet highlights current research and the greenhouse gas reduction benefit to various management strategies in a cow/calf operation. This document can be downloaded as a whole here (pdf file size 6 MB) or by section:

Introduction Part 1 (pdf file size 165 KB)
Introduction Part 2 (pdf file size 149 KB)
Figure 1 - Farm GHG Sources and Sinks (pdf file size 385 KB)
Section 1 Herd Health (pdf file size 88 KB)
Section 2 Grazing Management (pdf file size 1,376 KB)
Section 3 Feed Management (pdf file size 109 KB)
Section 4 Manure Management (pdf file size 355 KB)
References (pdf file size 40 KB)

Hog Operations and Greenhouse Gases
This booklet examines pig herd health, feed management, the barn, manure handling and storage, manure application and odour control in order to highlight their impacts on greenhouse gas management. This document can be downloaded as a whole here (pdf file size 6.28 MB) or by section:

Introduction Part 1 (pdf file size 168 KB)
Introduction Part 2 (pdf file size 521 KB)
Figure 1-Farm GHG sources and sinks (pdf file size 384 KB)
Section 1 Herd Health (pdf file size 107 KB)
Section 2 Feed Management (pdf file size 638 KB)
Section 3 Greenhouse gases and the barn (pdf file size 211 KB)
Section 4 Manure Handling and Storage Systems (pdf file size 449 KB)
Section 5 Manure Application and Management (pdf file size 135 KB)
Section 6 Controlling Odours and Greenhouse Gases (pdf file size 239 KB)
References (pdf file size 78 KB)

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

GHG Research
Since 2000, ARD 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 ARD staff and partners are currently involved in related to GHGs and climate change.

In 2003, ARD 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).

Study to evaluate the response of wheat, barley and canola with two nitrogen fertilizers. Len Kryzanowski, Environmental Stewardship Division and Ross McKenzie, Research Division of ARD are jointly conducting a province wide study to evaluate the effects of response of wheat, barley and canola with two nitrogen fertilizers including urea (46-0-0) and Environmentally Smart Nitrogen (ESN; a polymer coated slow release urea; 45-0-0) at 9 different agro-ecological locations across Alberta for five years. The fertilizers are applied at five different rates ranging from 0 to 120 kg/ha, banded in fall, and side banded and seed-placed at seeding, with each crop. The objectives of the study are to examine nitrogen fertilizer use, nitrogen fertilizer use efficiency and to develop nitrogen fertilizer response curves for each crop, in each major agro-ecological area of Alberta. The study is examining nitrous oxide emissions from the two fertilizer forms and the effects of time of fertilizer application and placement at the various N rates. The intensive gas monitoring takes place in all treatments from time of application to after crop harvest. The intensive sites monitored for gas emission are an irrigated site at Lethbridge in the Dark Brown soil zone, and dryland sites at Lacombe in the Black soil zone and near Westlock in the Gray Wooded soil zone.

Germar Lohstraeter taking a gas sample for nitrous oxide (N2O) flux measurements by using a gas chamber and syringe.

Craig Sprout taking a soil sample to measure available nitrogen beside a GHG sampling chamber.


Energy Efficiency
Increasing energy efficiency is one of the best ways for agriculture to address climate change. ARD is using energy assessments to increase energy efficiency on farms. Energy assessments make producers aware of their farms power consumption and where the largest economic benefits are gained by increasing energy efficiency. Energy assessments consist of spreadsheets, protocols and information on energy saving technologies that assessors use for various farming operations. In 2005 Climate Change Central and ARD started developing an energy assessment for livestock barns. ARD has set a goal to expand the assessment program to the entire farm. Assessments have recently been developed for irrigation, greenhouses, seed cleaning, feed mills and feedlots. One of the gaps in energy assessments on a farm is separating the power use for various operations. ARD encourages producers to meter separate operations for both natural gas and electricity so energy assessments can be performed and potential energy savings discovered. To address energy use in field operations, the Alberta Farm Carbon Calculator was developed. The calculator assists producers in saving diesel fuel during field operations.

New lighting technologies have been thoroughly investigated at the Agricultural Technology Centre. These new lighting technologies are demonstrated in a storage building at the Agricultural Technology Centre. New energy saving technologies that are currently under investigation include variable frequency drives for fans and pumps, infrared heating, tank-less hot water heater, solar air heater, LED lights and a written pole motor. The information found on energy savings with the technologies will also be used in the Growing Forward On-Farm Energy Management Program for possible future incentives.

Renewable Energy
On farm power generation should only be developed once all energy efficiencies are realized. The micro generation legislation in Alberta states that producers can only generate enough energy to offset the energy they use on farm. Wind energy shows great potential for on farm power generation. ARD collaborated with the Farmer’s Advocate and the Pembina Institute to develop the Landowner’s Guide to Wind Development. The guide is a resource to producers who are approached with wind development proposals or producers thinking of developing their own wind power micro generation. Solar energy also has great potential for on farm power generation but capital costs are still high. The Agricultural Technology Centre developed an off grid solar powered system for a storage building using photo voltaic panels. The system generates power for a light system and is used for research and demonstration. ARD organizes conferences to address the knowledge gap in renewable energy. Energy Options behind the Farm Gate conferences were held in Taber in 2009 and in Grande Prairie and Stettler in 2010.

Click here to view the Landowners’ Guide to Wind Energy in Alberta.

Greenhouse gas emissions from calf-fed and yearling-fed beef production systems, with and without the use of and growth promotants. Research is being conducted by J.A. Basarab, V.S. Baron, O. Lopez-Campos, J.L. Aalhus, and E.K.Okine. The objective of this study are to:

  1. Conduct a primary scope life cycle assessment of beef cattle production for GHG emissions using actual inputs and outputs from calf-fed vs. yearling-fed production systems with and without aggressive growth implant and feed additive strategies (e.g., β-adrenergic agonist);
  2. To compare GHG reductions with those generated from the equations in the “Reduced Days at Harvest in Beef Cattle” protocol. This report will be available in January 2012.

A collaborative research project between Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Agriculture and Rural Development and XY-Green Carbon Inc. on anaerobic digestion of animal manure. Anaerobic digestion (AD) of animal manure has become an environmentally attractive technology to meet the world’s increasing demand for energy. Anaerobically digested manure (ADM), often referred as digestate, is one of the final by-products of the biogas energy industry. The ADM is a nitrogen-rich material and its application increases crop yields, but could also increase soil nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, which is an environmental concern. The objectives of this study were to investigate the N2O emissions from soil receiving various forms of ADM application. Two field sites were selected, one near Lethbridge, Southern Alberta, and another near St. Albert, Central Alberta. A complete randomized block design with six treatments, two application rates and four replications was used. The six treatments were: (1) control: no amendment (CK), (2) fresh manure (M), (3) ADM, (4) liquid removed from ADM to produce separated solids (SS), (5) SS processed into pellets (PE), and (6) urea-enriched SS processed into N:P balanced pellets (PEU). All amendments were applied at rates of 100 and 200 kg N per ha per yr. Barley was grown and harvested at the soft dough stage as forage for making silage feed. During the growing season, the rate of N2O emission was collected weekly using a vented static chamber at the Lethbridge site and every two weeks at the St. Albert site. Analysis of preliminary data indicates that crop yield and N2O emission from the ADM treatment were generally higher than from all other treatments, reflecting the higher water soluble N in the ADM and increases in soil moisture content following the amendment application. Two more years of field work is planned for much needed additional field data before meaningful conclusions can be drawn.

Click here to view a presentation.

Climate Change Adaptation
Working with Alberta Environment’s Alberta Climate Change and Adaptation Team (ACCAT), ARD developed one of the first studies done in Alberta to examine whether the recent global climate patterns and more extreme weather events across the Canadian landscape were concerning producers. Producers from different agricultural sectors within the Taber, Red Deer, St Paul and Fairview area were asked to describe the ways they historically and currently deal with risks and opportunities arising from changing climate and what they intend to use as longer term strategies. The report outlines several strategies that producers could implement to adapt to climate change in order to be sustainable. This report is available for download here as a pdf file (size 374 KB).

Climate in Alberta has changed in the past and is projected to in the future. For a two-page factsheet summarizing past and expected changes go here.

How can farmers prepare for climate change? For a two-page factsheet summarizing options go here.

Click here to go to the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s page to view Alberta’s Climate Change Strategy current initiatives in Adapting to Climate Change.


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

Kerrianne Koehler-Munro
Environmental Program Specialist
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3628
Tom Goddard
Senior Policy Advisor
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3067

For more information about ARDs 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
Tanya Maynes
Climate Change Central

Sheilah Nolan
Climate Change Specialist
Environmental Strategy & Research Branch
Phone: 780-427-3719
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
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.

Environment Canada. 2010. National Inventory Report 1990-2008: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada.

Environment Canada. News Release June 23rd, 2010. Government of Canada Makes Major Investment to International Climate Change.

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.

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

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Summary for Policymakers,” in Bert Metz et al. (eds) Climate change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Available online at
This document is maintained by Nicole Huggins-Rawlins.
This information published to the web on March 2, 2005.
Last Reviewed/Revised on March 4, 2015.