Given the momentum behind carbon farming as a climate change mitigation strategy, we believe now is the time to establish clear standards that ensure that only real net changes in carbon receive financial rewards.
Policymakers want to pay farmers for storing carbon in soil, but there are no uniform rules yet for measuring, reporting or verifying the results. Four scholars offer some ground rules.
Carbon farming basics
As plants grow, they pull carbon from the atmosphere, and soil soaks it up and stores it. The amount of carbon stored varies significantly across soil type and climate.
Another climate-friendly strategy is raising livestock and crops together. Rotating cows among pastures allows grasses to recover from grazing, and the animals’ manure and the impacts of their grazing regenerate carbon in soils.
Carbon farming is also a potential revenue stream for farmers and ranchers, who can sell the credits they earn in carbon markets. Large-scale greenhouse gas emitters, such as manufacturers, purchase these credits to offset their own emissions.
Companies such as IndigoAg and Nori are already facilitating payments to farmers for carbon credits. And on June 24, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021 by a vote of 92-8. The bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners participate in carbon markets.
So far, however, there are no universal standards for measuring, reporting or verifying agricultural carbon credits. Here are the questions we see as top priorities.
Assessing carbon storage
One major challenge is that soils absorb varying amounts of carbon depending on depth, texture and mineral content. While certain practices increase carbon storage, quantifying how much is stored and for how long is critical for assigning dollar values to them. The markets and practices that work in different locations also vary widely.