EDF surveys soil carbon market protocols

Jonathan Sanderman, an associate soil scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, says expectations agricultural soils will gain carbon and provide income to farmers are too high.

Lawmakers should swiftly impose standards on soil carbon protocols whose sequestration efficacy has yet to be proven, said an author of a recent Environmental Defense Fund overview of the market.

“Right now, since there is no oversight at all and there is no compliance and it’s all voluntary, the way we see these markets going is as a Wild West race to the bottom,” EDF associate soil scientist Jonathan Sanderman told Agri Investor. “These markets are trying to give the most value of a small credit back to the farmer, so they are minimizing the verification costs, which minimizes the accuracy of any potential climate benefits.”

Sanderman was among the authors of a July EDF report that analyzed 12 existing carbon soil protocols with a focus on their measurement, reporting and verification practices.

The protocols analyzed – eight from the US, two from Australia, one from Canada and one aligned with the FAO – included offerings by Verra, Nori, BCarbon and others. Among the practice changes producing credits were nutrient management to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, manure management to reduce methane and reduced CO2 emissions through lessened tractor use, cover crops and other practices.

All of the protocols analyzed use some combination of soil sampling, remote sensing and processed-based modelling to quantify net greenhouse gas emissions reductions, according to EDF. The New York-headquartered non-profit wrote that little evidence currently exists that such models can accurately measure soil carbon to the field level. Differences among protocols, it added, make addressing more complex questions of additionality and permanence of emissions reductions more difficult.

“From the science I have seen, there’s no way of doing it [verification] at the farm-level; at least cost-effectively. The big caveat on this is cost-effectiveness,” said Sanderman. “If carbon price goes up to $100 per ton, then we could do a lot at the farm level and still provide value back to the farmer.”

The report describes a recent “gold rush of investment into soil carbon credits” and warns inconsistent or non-transferrable credits could threaten confidence in the entire market. It also calls for public investment in efforts to improve standards and provide independent data.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act currently making its way through Congress, said Sanderman, could provide funding for research designed to support such improvements. For a relatively minor investment of between $20 million to $50 million, he said, the Federal government could design and operate an independent data monitoring program for soil carbon markets to help increase confidence without playing too direct a role.

“We don’t think these markets actually are capable of verifying real emissions reductions right now,” explained Sanderman, who has been in his current EDF position for more than six years and previously spent 12 years as a senior research scientist with CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“Even if they are issuing lots of credits, it’s really hard to understand if those credits are actually leading to a real atmospheric benefit,” he added

It is only within the past few years that discussions previously focused on “soil health” have moved to quantifying “soil carbon,” according to Sanderman. In general, he said, expectations soil is going to gain significant amounts of carbon or provide a meaningful income stream for farmers are too high.

“Incremental management change will lead to incremental change in soil carbon level. You need to shift the system fairly radically to see large carbon gains,” he said. “People have been sold this ‘soil carbon will save the world’ line based on very small, intensively-managed land, but that’s not what agriculture is in this country.”