Green goals, grey realities: the net-zero quest

By Katerina Kolemishevska

Editor’s note: Katerina Kolemishevska is Director of Policy Development, Canadian Pork Council (CPC). She can be contacted at

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood alongside other world leaders in at the COP21 conference in 2015, signing Canada onto the Paris Agreement, which commits us to international net-zero goals.

The call for a net-zero planet has been echoing across countries, industries and communities with more urgency than ever before. As floods, heat waves and wildfires ravage our world, finding an effective but achievable solution to climate change is paramount.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2018 that the Earth has warmed 1.5 degrees-Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, due to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The report emphasizes the need for a “rapid and far-reaching” transition to keep temperatures at current levels. This is how the net-zero concept came to exist and was adopted with the Paris Agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), during which signatory countries, including Canada, pledged to act.

Canada has committed to reaching economy-wide net-zero GHGs by 2050, along with 120 countries, aiming to slash global emissions in half by 2030. The Canadian government has set various legislative measures to meet the goals, with the most important being the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, enacted in 2021. Currently, the government is developing its Sustainable Agricultural Strategy (SAS), outlining the indicators, tools and actions that could help the agri-food sector meet the target.

What does ‘net zero’ really mean?

Manure management strategies align with net-zero ‘insetting’ practices and have widespread application on Canadian farms today.

Interpretations of ‘net zero’ usually refer to reducing GHG emissions to the greatest possible extent and balancing what’s left. Why ‘net’ zero? Even with total de-carbonization of systems that create emissions, there will always be GHGs in the environment. To reach total neutrality – or ‘zero’ – emissions must be completely balanced, which is impossible. As most emissions come from energy-intensive industries, including agriculture, a delicate yet imperfect solution is being sought.

‘Offsetting’ and ‘insetting’ GHG emissions are two basic strategies for agriculture. Offsetting provides an instant way to balance emissions, whereas insetting directly enhances the sustainability and resiliency of agricultural operations.

To be more precise, offsetting allows producers to compensate for emissions already produced by investing in environmental projects outside of their operations, to reduce their carbon footprint. Most offsetting strategies focus on industrial carbon capture and storage. This is contrasted with reducing emissions directly related to agricultural activity and the agri-food supply chain, which is considered insetting.

Insetting incorporates carbon reduction directly into the production business model, such as conservation tillage, crop rotation and manure management. Depending on the operational structure, producers can combine offsetting and insetting practices and tailor them to specific on-farm contexts to drive significant progress towards the broader net-zero goal.

Are some net-zero goals out-of-reach?

Realistically reaching net zero remains a foggy proposition for most Canadian hog farmers, as investment and technology are still insufficient.

The net-zero approach represents a good attempt to tackle climate change in theory, but in practice, the path is burdened with complications.

As it stands today, it seems nearly impossible to maintain global temperatures at just 1.5 degrees-Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This will require significant adjustments for the agri-food sector, including how we produce crops and livestock, eliminate food waste and manage biodiversity.

Transitioning to net zero often requires substantial investments in new technology, equipment and procedures. In its report on “Canada’s road to net-zero,” RBC estimates $2 trillion of investments will be needed to finance the transition over the next three decades. That’s at least $60 billion annually from government and industry to cut Canada’s emissions by 75 per cent.

For agriculture alone, RBC suggests costs will be $2.5 billion annually to cut emissions from 73 megatonnes in 2019 to 43 megatonnes going forward. While current government programs can cover some of the cost, it is unclear how public incentives can guarantee long-term commitment. But what happens with the huge remaining cash gap needed to enable this transition? Where is that money coming from? Current economic conditions, such as inflation rates, don’t make it any better. On the contrary, it makes the money tighter.

Technological limitations also challenge innovation. Despite scientific progress, we are still in the early stages of creating scalable, efficient and cost-effective climate-smart technologies. While other sectors have identified many technologies that could substantially reduce emissions, these are not readily available in agriculture. As energy sources vary from one region of the country to the next, one-size-fits-all solutions may be out-of-reach for farmers.

Across agriculture, carbon capture and storage systems could be a game changer, but land availability is a major concern. The U.K.-based climate policy thinktank, Grantham Institute, believes up to 1.2 billion hectares of land worldwide would be required to grow crops for bioenergy to replace conventional, carbon-intensive forms. That equates to nearly 80 per cent of all the land that is now farmed. Implementation at that scale would permanently damage biodiversity and harm global food security.

And there’s another problem: nitrogen. We still have much to discover scientifically when it comes to understanding biological processes that contribute to GHG emissions, especially the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen encourages carbon sequestration by promoting plant growth, so it must be managed carefully. A recent report by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) highlights the lack of clarity on how nitrogen affects soil microorganisms, which impacts soil biodiversity and fertility, crop output and nitrogen emissions. As the nitrogen enigma becomes better-understood, we may find out that the net-zero calculations are even more complicated than previously thought.

The existing knowledge gaps in agriculture make net zero unfeasible with today’s tools. To overcome this barrier, the industry needs multi-faceted strategies to support economic, social and technological advancements.

Find a more balanced way forward

ESG goals have consumed the corporate world. Even within the Canadian pork industry, companies are looking to keep up.

Even if all of the recommended best management practices are implemented, the agri-food sector has little chance of attaining net zero. Despite the associated risks, many agricultural sectors have already committed to pursuing these environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

While the Canadian pork industry’s carbon footprint is comparatively low, we have significant potential to reduce our overall environmental impact. Hog farmers are constantly striving to improve on-farm practices to lower their input costs and generate positive ecological outcomes.

Yet, some experts consider the net zero commitment necessary to fast-track progress, while others argue that additional regulations and taxes should accompany the pledge; however, relying on legislation rather than cooperation undermines the incentive for producer engagement.

Initiatives that measure and enhance producer sustainability support the broader industry’s transformation efforts. Sustainability as a principle – rather than net-zero commitments – balances all associated factors to ensure the industry’s long-term viability, rather than only targeting GHG emissions in the pursuit of a one-dimensional objective.

Given that the obstacles to net zero are significant, acknowledging them does not justify inaction. Instead, it demands a more realistic approach. Prioritizing best management practices is important, but producers are not the sole drivers of change. We should shift our attention and invest profoundly in research and development to address technological gaps and develop strategies that work for everyone.

The reality of arriving at net zero is grey because, regardless of which direction we take, no solution is completely green. Instead of unreachable targets, we should understand that the path toward sustainability is a series of steps, and every step in the right direction is critical.