Carbon Farming
Regenerative Ag

Permanence, Reversals, Additionality & More: Answering Your Biggest Questions in Carbon Project Development

Agricultural carbon program design is notoriously complex. Sustainability leaders and project developers must grapple with frequent updates to protocol guidelines, high scrutiny on data & science, and balancing the priorities of a diverse set of stakeholders. Regrow is here to help.

We recently hosted an online event (How to Design Impactful Carbon Programs) featuring two of our policy and protocol experts, Lucia von Reusner and Katelyn Winkler. This session was designed for sustainability leaders ready to move beyond baselining and take climate action in their value chain.

Over the course of an hour, Lucia and Katelyn fielded more than 20 questions from the audience, getting into the nitty gritty of agricultural carbon project protocols, including permanence, reversal, additionality, remote sensing and more. Below you’ll find a snapshot of some of the key discussion points, and you can find the full recording of the conversation here.

Can you talk about the permanence of carbon sequestration? How long is permanent and how is permanence assured?

Katelyn Winkler: That's a great question, and it's dependent upon the protocol. So if I'm remembering my figures right, I believe that CARSEP says 100 years. Verra just changed theirs, and I believe it's now 40 years [see New VCS Program Rules and Requirements Related to AFOLU Non-Permanence Risk Tool].

So in terms of permanence. It's certainly a very long time, and I think that for a lot of companies that are wanting to start these programs, you think about the next 40 years and having to ensure that the carbon really has been sequestered in the soil. 

Particularly for the agricultural space, farming and the decisions made on-farm change so much year by year. And so it can be really daunting to think about how to retain growers for that amount of time. 

And so I think that staying abreast of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Land Sectors Removals Guidance, and what they have to say about permanence will be really key here, and ensuring that any of the guidance put out by LSRG or the individual protocols around permanence, and what methods of permanence monitoring are allowed will help to inform how you can assure that permanence and that requirement is met within your project.

Lucia von Reusner: And it's also important to note that permanence is, usually, and reversals are assessed on a program level. Not necessarily just in the individual field. So oftentimes a program can balance out reversals via sequestration happening in other parts of the program.

But if a significant reversal event happens, that's why projects generally have to keep a buffer pool, or protocols have a buffer pool, so that there's essentially an insurance pool to protect against reversals that get released in those instances.

How reliable are the current SOC estimates using technology entirely, and eliminating soil sampling? Is soil sampling still critical?

Katelyn Winkler: So soil sampling, at least in the modeling space, is used to initialize the model. It's very important that you are able to finely tune the model before you begin a project, so you know you're going to get a certain level of accuracy. And that's why soil sampling is so required. 

But as to the other part of your question: we know, for instance, VM0042 is exploring methods for SOC quantification that don't involve soil sampling. I know there are several companies out there doing really fascinating and exciting work in soil spectroscopy.

And all of these sorts of really exciting ways of measuring solar organic carbon without the use of what can often be very expensive soil sampling.

Lucia von Reusner: But yes, for right now, it is still required.

This is also where the uncertainty comes in. And so there's recognition that modeling always has deviations. It's never an exact exact representation of reality. And so all protocols require that you quantify uncertainty and also take an uncertainty reduction from your removals. These are credits that avoid over-crediting and provide a kind of safeguard around the conservativeness of your results.

Are we able to quantify reversals accurately? And how is that actually done?

Lucia von Reusner: So another technicality of carbon programs is if you lose the ability to monitor a field, it is automatically considered a full reversal. So it's really important to have in place a long term monitoring plan.

And fortunately remote sensing can be used to enable long term monitoring as well, and then on the actual definition and quantification of reversals. So within agricultural soil carbon projects, it's generally defined as large scale, sustained tillage events, and it really depends on your method of quantification. And at Regrow, we use tier 3 modeling based on practice detection. We quantify the changes in tillage over time and can use that to track reversals.

Can you talk about the factors affecting additionality?

Lucia von Reusner: Additionality is very specific to offset protocols, and it's a slightly higher barrier than causality which is in scope 3 programs. But it will apply to any field coming into a program regardless of owner. 

So in offset protocols there's a couple of different barriers for additionality, one being regulatory requirements. If it's already required by law, it just happens to be a field that isn't doing it, then it's still technically required by law. And there's not this need for a carbon program. It wouldn't be considered additional for a carbon program to shift that field.

There's also common practice additionality, and that varies a bit depending on the location and the protocol. But essentially, if a significant number of farmers or fields in an area have already adopted a practice, then it would not be considered additional, because it's considered common practice in the area. 

And then there's also financial additionality in terms of demonstrating that this additional finance from carbon markets is needed to shift the practice on the field. So it's not really tied to the ownership of the land. It's really looking at the history of the field and some of the regulatory requirements and practice adoption.

With half of us farms barely breaking even financially and struggling with farm asset capitalization, how do we create that confidence for producers that the first years of practice transition will produce yields that keep the farm running?

Lucia von Reusner: Great question, and I think that's why upfront we really emphasize the importance of bringing in agronomic support to really make sure that in bringing a farmer along in this journey of changing what they've been doing to something new, that you're really providing the expert support to make sure that they are doing it in a way that makes sense for their farm, for their field, for their soil type, for their crop.  And that they're really trialing with the hands of an expert.

It can also be really valuable to start the program with payments for practice adoption rather than outcomes to help provide confidence to the farmer that there's a buffer period for trying new things. 

And you want to maintain confidence that they're implementing practices and not get discouraged if what they tried to bring the first year didn't work out. They spent money on it. But then, you know, “Too bad for you didn't work out. So you're not gonna get any payments.” 

So I would say, really, focusing on economic support and then making sure your incentives are lined up to allow for that R&D period. 

Also really important is having this monitoring and verification system in place so that you're really tracking what's happening on the field year to year, and you can create the cycle of continuous improvement. So in addition to tracking the carbon outcome, also be tracking, yield and make sure you include time in your program design and your staff time to be really sitting down and reviewing results. 

Where were there trade offs? Where did the program not go exactly as planned? And how can you improve in the future?

Katelyn Winkler: Yeah, another actual requirement of soil organic carbon protocols is that they have safeguards within the protocols to account for yield declines. There typically can't be more than a 5% yield decline, otherwise that intervention is no longer valid for the program. So I think the idea is there, but what Lucia discussed is really important for the actual implementation of that aspect of the protocol.

Keep an eye out for upcoming sessions with Regrow experts and our partners across the agricultural value chain. And if you have a pressing protocol design challenge that needs solving, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team.

Looking for a deep dive?

Get the 101 on Agriculture Resilience and see what it could mean for the future of our industry — and our planet.

Learn more