The Canadian PM knows it won't pass, but it is a useful distraction
Given all the media attention it has received, it may be surprising to learn that Trudeau’s plan to cut nitrogen emissions by reducing fertiliser is not new — it was announced as a part of a broader climate plan in 2021. And contrary to claims made by certain outlets, the approach is very different from the Dutch plan, namely in that it does not directly target fertiliser use. Its effects on fertiliser usage, and therefore crop yield, would be indirect.
There are ongoing disputes about the emissions plan and its effectiveness. On the one hand, Fertilizer Canada, an industry group representing Canada’s fertiliser industry, calculated in a report commissioned in September 2021 that if the 30% emissions target were reached, it would lead to a 20% reduction in fertiliser usage compared to 2020 levels. The report then estimates an even greater reduction in crop yields, at an overall economic cost at $48 billion.
Elsewhere, however, analysis conducted by academics at Guelph University found that the effects on fertiliser reduction would be far less dramatic than a 20%, and may not even result in crop reduction.
But whether or not the emissions plan is achievable (or desirable) is beside the point. What is more helpful is considering the politics and economics behind Trudeau’s plan.
First of all, there is the significant power of farmer lobbies in Canada. For example, the Department of Environment considered a tax on phosphorus fertilisers to reduce phosphorus runoffs into the Great Lakes in accordance with a 2012 Great Lakes Quality Agreement signed with the United States. But the idea was dropped due to fears of industry protest. Something similar could well be happening again, with the ‘protests’ taking the form of the usual backroom dealing that the farmer lobbies specialise in.
Then there is the challenge of provincial resistance. Provincial ministers are already quibbling about the details, most notably the premier of Saskatchewan, a major energy and wheat-producing province, who is threatening to be more assertive over provincial autonomy. This is not uncommon when the federal government proposes policy, and what will likely happen is that it will settle on the definition preferred by the provincial governments.
This occurred during the battle over last year’s requirement for a standardised national proof of vaccination, which floundered because health (and health information) is under the jurisdiction of the provinces. The provinces won, with the ‘national’ proof being simply the provincial proof with a federal seal of approval. The federal government was never given access to vaccine records.
Finally, there are the economic realities which greatly limit the scope for a radical climate policy. Despite multiple pledges and promises, greenhouse gas emissions only dropped by 1.1% between 2005 to 2009, and have actually increased since the Trudeau government signed the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The hard economic facts is that Canada is (and always has been) a country highly dependent on raw resource exploitation. While fighting for climate change goals makes for distracting headlines to Trudeau’s deeply unpopular government, the only direction for greenhouse gas emissions is up, barring an economic recession.