Decarbon Daily - Carbon Offsets & Trading
Inside this issue
Sequestering Carbon through Regenerative Farming, Part 2
Miss out on yesterday's article? Read Part 1: What is soil?
The new carbon economy
There are distinct advantages to storing carbon in the soil rather than forests. Carbon stays in the soil for centuries, whereas forests have a naturally limited lifecycle, take a long time to sequester carbon, and may die off unnaturally before intended sequestration rates are achieved.
The drawdown capabilities of soil are just now being realized, and a new economy is being driven with soil health as the currency. Individual farms, businesses, NGOs, and entire governments are devoting their resources to scaling - and monetizing - practices which draw carbon into the soil.
Seattle-based startup Nori sells offsets that originated in verified regenerative agriculture projects, using blockchain to track separation and credit ownership. Other platforms such as Indigo Carbon, TruCarbon, Bayer Carbon Initiative, and Nutrien employ similar methods of selling offsets. In all of these offset suppliers, farmers provide verifiable data through direct observations, IoT (internet of things), and various calculators to establish baselines and determine the amount of carbon sequestered. From there, third-parties verify offsets, which are then sent to market and retired upon purchase.
The USDA’s COMET-Farm program is the basis for many soil-based offsets. Using spatial data for specific areas, farmers and ranchers can estimate carbon sequestration of their operations through exploring various options on COMET-Farm’s platform. The result is an accurate estimate of GHG reduction and sequestration tailored to an operation’s needs.
SOC offsets have two major issues, though. For starters, anyone wishing to sell offsets must prove they are initiating new carbon sequestering projects, a process called 'additionality'. This means that existing regenerative farming is usually ineligible for the offset market.
SOC offset markets are traditionally faced with shoddy reporting, double-counting of credits, and criticism for distracting from projects that stop emissions in the first place. By using COMET-Farm, third-party verifiers, and blockchain technology, SOC offset suppliers are rebranding their market as a trustworthy tool for addressing the climate crisis.
Criticism aside, the vast majority of degraded farmland in the U.S. will qualify as carbon sequestration projects, potentially adding meaningful incentives for farmers and ranchers to start farming carbon. And when it comes to drawing down carbon, it’s all-hands on deck.
But future sequestration projects need to be done right and not distract from other meaningful climate action. The onus is rapid decarbonization of the economy and using sequestration to clean up what’s already in the atmosphere.
The choice is clear: Accelerate unhealthy soil as a carbon emitter - thus accelerating climate change and food insecurity - or keep remaining carbon in the ground, put more back into soil, and enjoy the cumulative benefits of climate mitigation and resilience.
How to draw down carbon: What farms and ranches can do, and the challenges they face
Mounting evidence strongly suggests conventional farming methods that break, till, chemically treat, and generally molest soil are lead causes of dwindling soil organic carbon. Such activities break the networks between microbes and the foods they need. When these connections are broken, trapped nutrients aren’t made available to plants.
Soil does more than convert nutrients for plants, but prevents erosion and improves water retention. A 2012 Michigan State University study estimates that, for every percentage point of carbon per acre, 40,000 gallons of water can be absorbed. This in turn mitigates drought and increases soil fertility.
Modern agriculture rapidly depletes SOC, making adding more an uphill battle. What’s more, regenerative soil techniques are very site specific, so adopting a one-size-fits-all solution would spell catastrophe. There are general practices that work across the board, with regionally-specific nuances to be adjusted for each:
- Organic manures
- Cover cropping
- Conservation tillage
- Fertility management
- Rotational grazing
These low-cost, high-leverage solutions are proven staples in soil regeneration. So what’s keeping farmers everywhere from transitioning?
While long term health of soils and crops are nearly guaranteed, most farmers won’t see meaningful productivity boosts immediately. In a commodity system, such a risky transition is too costly for most farmers. Industrial-scale agriculture is fine-tuned to predictable climate patterns and markets, but both of those foundations are beginning to falter.
In time, farming for soil may become standard practice by necessity, especially in face of worsening droughts and unstable commodity markets. Paying farmers and ranchers for the carbon they sequester in their soils could be an important way to help agriculture along in the regenerative transition, as well as help put a long overdue price on carbon.
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