Enabling the Adoption of Natural Climate Solutions in Canada’s Agriculture Sector 

By: Lisa Ashton, PhD, Sustainability and Environment Lead at Grain Farmers of Ontario

Better governance is key to enable transformations in the agriculture sector to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change and scale natural climate solutions. Lisa Ashton, PhD, outlines her research on how to best enable these changes in Canada’s agriculture sector.

Agriculture is one of the most impacted sectors by climate change, especially at the farm level, where soil, water, and air, are fundamental to a producer’s operation. To mitigate climate change to the point where we keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius requires action across all sectors. In agriculture, there is a surge in efforts to advance agricultural producers’ role as climate solution providers, reducing on-farm GHG emissions and enhancing carbon storage in soils… But do these efforts lead to an enabling environment for climate action in Canada’s agricultural sector?  

Recently, I completed my PhD, which sought to answer this question by identifying key components of an enabling environment for scaling natural climate solutions in Canada’s agricultural sector and pathways forward.  

Like many economic sectors, there are a variety of climate change mitigation solutions that can be pursued in agriculture, including electrification, increasing the circularity of resources and material use, and solutions found in nature or based on natural processes. The latter is commonly referred to as natural climate solutions, which are conservation, restoration, and improved management actions adopted by people that result in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, removals, and avoidances and can produce co-benefits for society and the environment.i ii These actions in agriculture include improved nutrient management, cover cropping, protecting grasslands, and diversifying crop rotations.  

The growing and diversifying arena of mechanisms that influence the adoption and maintenance of natural climate solutions in agriculture can be characterized by: 

  • an increase in financial products and marketplaces that incentivize environmental outcomes; 
  • expansion of cost-share programs that explicitly fund climate action on farms; 
  • a growing regenerative agriculture movement; 
  • a mounting number of GHG reduction target announcements for the agriculture sector from governments, associations, and companies; 
  • and a rise in natural climate solutions-focused certifications, initiatives, roundtables, coalitions, and platforms for the agriculture sector.  

The first objective of my research was to make sense of these diverse mechanisms and their contribution to an enabling environment for scaling natural climate solutions, which led to the development of a governance framework (see Table 1).iii  

The framework manifests as a list of ten normative criteria organized by macro, sector, and geographical scales, which, if realized, can help advance natural climate solutions adoption in agriculture. When applying the framework to the Canadian context, it revealed that Canada is progressing towards meeting the framework’s criteria. However, in its current state, the governance ecosystem that influences natural climate solutions adoption in Canada’s agriculture sector is project-specific, with a patchwork of governance mechanisms largely operating parallel to one another, such that only some regional successes are possible. The governance framework for natural climate solutions in agriculture is intended to allow users to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps within a governance ecosystem and, therefore, providing policymakers, practitioners, and academics with a preliminary tool to view the system as a whole and isolate areas that require improvement.   

Source: Ashton, L. (2022). A framework for promoting natural climate solutions in the agriculture sector. Land Use Policy, 122, 106382. http://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.106382 

Along with governance mechanisms, enabling conditions are a critical component of the ecosystem that influences natural climate solutions adoption in agriculture as they describe the conditions needed to achieve a desired outcome. For example, farmer access to peers with experience in adopting natural climate solutions is identified as an enabling condition for scaling adoption, which can be provided through the implementation of mechanisms such as extension programs.iv

To learn more about the enabling conditions needed in the Canadian context for scaling natural climate solutions, I engaged with over 50 experts in agricultural production; agricultural technology; climate and environmental policy and markets; sustainable investment; sustainable sourcing and agri-food supply chains; measuring, reporting, and verification of ecosystem services; technical assistance; and ecosystem modeling. Findings from the interviews suggest that the potential for natural climate solutions adoption is currently limited by several critical barriers, including regulatory uncertainty, insufficient investment in measuring and monitoring infrastructure, and a lack of accessible and relevant resources to inform and guide actors.

To overcome these barriers and others, aggregated findings point to four principal enabling conditions (see Figure 1) that organize an additional 100+ enabling conditions that offer a deeper understanding of the conditions that are foundational to an integrated approach to creating an enabling environment for scaling natural climate solutions in Canada’s agriculture sector.v 

Figure 1. Principal enabling conditions for scaling natural climate solutions in Canada’s agriculture sector as aggregated from key informant interviews (Results from key informant interviews are presented in Ashton and Bradshaw, 2023).

These four principal enabling conditions were identified through a case study on Canada’s agriculture sector but may be transferable to other jurisdictions and sectors (e.g., forestry). An enabling condition identified in my research and other studiesvi that can apply to different cases is inclusivity in decision-making processes, especially regarding land stewards (e.g., farmers). Land stewards are ultimately the ones that adopt and maintain natural climate solutions, and therefore, the systems that promote them must apply to their realities on the ground. 

To advance the understanding of pathways for scaling natural climate solutions, experts were re-engaged through a multi-round survey method called a policy Delphi, where they could review and comment on other experts’ responses anonymously. Through this exercise, participating experts strongly agreed that the enabling conditions presented in Figure 1 are critical for Canadian producers’ further adoption of natural climate solutions. Areas of disagreement and opportunities for further exploration include how the principal enabling conditions should be established, especially concerning the role of governments, the utility of GHG targets for the agriculture sector, and approaches to GHG measuring, reporting, and verification.vii  

Adopting natural climate solutions is a critical component of current and future sustainable agricultural systems. The snapshot summary of my research findings herein offers a starting point for framing what an enabling environment might look like for scaling natural climate solutions in Canada’s agriculture sector. 

Disclaimer: The research and opinions shared in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Grain Farmers of Ontario. This research was conducted before the author joined Grain Farmers of Ontario. 

[i] Griscom, B. W., Adams, J., Ellis, P. W., Houghton, R. A., Lomax, G., Miteva, D. A., … Fargione, J. (2017). Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(44), 11645–11650. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114

[ii] Drever, C. R., Cook-Patton, S. C., Akhter, F., Badiou, P. H., Chmura, G. L., Davidson, S. J., … Kurz, W. A. (2021). Natural Climate Solutions for Canada. Science Advances, 7(23), 1–14.

[iii] Source: Ashton, L. (2022). A framework for promoting natural climate solutions in the agriculture sector. Land Use Policy, 122, 106382. http://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.106382

[iv] Kragt, M.E., Dumbrell, N.P., Blackmore, L. (2017). Motivations and barriers for Western Australian broad-acre producers to adopt carbon farming. Environ. Sci. Policy 73 (November 2016), 115–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2017.04.009.

[v] Ashton, L., & Bradshaw, B. (2023). Enabling conditions for scaling natural climate solutions in Canada’s agriculture sector. Nature-Based Solutions, 3, 100071. http://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nbsj.2023.100071

[vi] Townsend, J., Moola, F., and Craig, M-K. (2020). Indigenous Peoples are critical to the success of nature-based solutions to climate change. FACETS. 5(1): 551-556. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2019-0058

[vii] Ashton, L. (2023). An enabling governance ecosystem for scaling natural climate solutions in agriculture: Identifying key components and designing pathways forward. University of Guelph. Thesis. https://hdl.handle.net/10214/27817