Welcome to the latest "Carbon Removal Dialogue," a feature on the Center For Carbon Removal blog where we ask experts to share their thoughts on important questions related to carbon removal. We've consolidated the responses into a single post (below) -- and please share your thoughts in the comments section as well!
This time, the question pertains to "carbon farming" -- i.e. the umbrella term used to describe the range of agricultural techniques that hold the potential to sequester carbon in plants and soils (check out our fact sheet for more information on these farming techniques).
Thanks to all of the experts that have responded to our question, and without further ado, our "carbon farming" dialogue!
Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Markets Director
There are a couple of challenges to the adoption of soil carbon in environmental markets. To start with, the soil carbon cycle is dynamic and complex. There currently are few long term studies about what practices sequester carbon and how that carbon is retained over long periods of time. This is starting to change, but is still a challenge. Some simplifying assumptions have been made for the inclusion of carbon sequestration practices in voluntary carbon markets. Three carbon offset protocols have been developed over the past four years which allow landowners to generate carbon offsets from practices such as the avoided conversion of grasslands to croplands and the application of compost to rangeland. In November of 2014 the first project, located in the North Dakota, generated 40,000 tons of offsets from the preservation of grasslands. Several other projects are in the pipeline. To really expand this market, one of the three protocols needs to be adopted by the California cap-and-trade program. To date only two agriculture related protocols exist in this market – dairy methane destruction and rice methane avoidance. With the development of additional pilot projects, it would be possible to see a soil carbon offset protocol adopted by the California Air Resources Board in the future.
Professor - School of Sustainability & Cronkite School of Journalism
We (the ASU / Soil Carbon Nation research team) propose to conduct whole systems science comparing Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing with continuous grazing to see whether there are indeed C accrual benefits with AMP grazing. Our principal investigator, Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M, has found that there is a large benefit re: carbon accrual with AMP grazing.
Soil carbon is currently not recognized for trading by the CA Air Resources Board. Soil Carbon is not accepted by EPA in the President's Clean Power Plan, as a way for states to mitigate their power grid's carbon intensity.
We've been told by folks within CA ARB and EPA that the data we propose to collect will be very helpful in getting those agencies to recognize soil carbon as a tool in carbon mitigation.
Associate Policy Director
"An overly market-based approach to achieving agricultural carbon sequestration may present too many logistical challenges for most growers to overcome. As I wrote in a blog post last year, the burdens imposed by agricultural carbon offset protocols can be high, excluding participation from growers (particularly smaller ones) who lack the time and resources to take them on. Meanwhile, the monetary compensation may be so small as to be practically insignificant. The State of California can still plan an important role in promoting carbon sequestration and other farm practices that reduce GHG emissions and improve overall environmental health. They can do that through grower technical assistance, outreach and financial incentives separate from the carbon market."
Carbon farming will be greatly accelerated when more talent, time, and treasure are focused on the growing field of open-data monitoring and modeling for regenerative agriculture. Farmers, ranchers and land managers need more access to low-cost sensors for measuring and monitoring soil carbon, Photosynq being an excellent example of such a sensor. Other new tools and resources in this field are farmOS, Cool Farm Tool, GoCrop, and the Soil Carbon Coalition. You can learn more about these organizations and tools by watching the Open Agriculture Learning Series. Watch this space, it will change the face of agriculture.
I'd say there are two big barriers: accountability and permanence. First, accurately estimating the amount of carbon being sequestered and/or avoided in an agricultural practice is often more difficult and time consuming than in activities that reduce fossil fuel emissions. With the latter, you need to estimate how much energy or fuel has been saved and the emissions saving is a straightforward calculation; for the former, you need to regularly monitor carbon in soils across a whole landscape. The amount sequestered will also vary between different places and over time in response to changing conditions like rainfall. This also makes it difficult to predict the number of credits you'll produce from an agricultural activity.
The second big problem is impermanence. Carbon stored in soils can be easily re-released by a future change in climate or cropping practice, for example, which makes a soil carbon credit fundamentally distinct from an avoided emission credit and risks undermining the carbon market concept. This is the main reason forestry and agriculture are not permitted in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. One answer is to make farmers liable for any re-emitted carbon, but that raises another problem: how do you convince people to sequester carbon in their soils if they might have to pay for its release a decade from now, especially if the carbon price then could be five times higher than what they receive today?
Improved measurement and verification tools. Regulators need more confidence in carbon accounting (i.e. whether specific management practices on specific plots of land lead to the carbon sequestration benefits that are claimed). And farmers need inexpensive (both in terms of effort and capital) tools to measure carbon sequestration and monetize their benefits.
Have an idea for a dialogue question? Email us (email@example.com) or leave it in the comments below!