March 9, 2023

Uncertainties of Nature-Based Carbon Sequestration

Jeff Seale, PhD
Director of Environmental Strategy and Climate Policy

Through its recent investment of over $3 billion in agricultural climate smart grant projects, the US government has implicitly acknowledged that our land, with its natural ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, must be part of the solution to climate change. But designing projects to achieve and measure these positive outcomes can be tricky.

In particular, a crucial part of building a transparent and accountable climate movement lies in our ability to track the impact of carbon sequestration projects.

Understanding the positive impact of carbon sequestration allows us to monetize environmental work, which will lead to increased demand (and financial support) for healthy environments.

However, the playbook for setting up carbon sequestration projects is still being refined. Projects can be difficult to plan, challenging to execute, and require extensive tracking in order to assure that outcomes are accurately measured. This makes soil-based carbon sequestration a resource-intensive process, and often it means that our outcomes aren’t calculated as clearly as we’d like.

However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to invest in this process. Our land holds a lot of potential — and it’s up to us to find the best way to utilize it for the betterment of our climate.

Let’s talk about the difficulties in building, executing and tracking carbon sequestration programs, in an effort to better understand why soil-based carbon sequestration is essential, and where it can take us in the future.

Building a Carbon Program

Developing a carbon program is nuanced. These programs are often funded and executed by large multinational organizations that have stakeholders across the agrifood supply chain. In order to execute a carbon program effectively, partners across the host’s supply chain must collaborate to provide data, implement new practices and track project outcomes. This requires additional effort from all parties, which can be difficult to secure and subsequently keep tabs on. It also requires that all partners understand the business impacts of their efforts, such as the timelines and financial burdens associated with implementing a program.

For example: increasing soil health on a grower’s farm takes years. Farmers may see lower yields in the first 5 years after implementing more sustainable practices (though the changes can lead to increased carbon sequestration and yield in the long run).

How do we support farmers financially as they bridge this gap? How does this change impact crop prices today? How will the program host need to change ingredient sourcing ? How might this affect the final cost of goods for consumers?

These factors (and more) must be addressed before implementing a land-based carbon sequestration program.

In addition to aligning with supply chain partners, host organizations must also build carbon programs in line with industry regulations. This ensures that their outcomes will be valid in ESG reporting, tradeable in the carbon marketplace, or otherwise validated by the greater climate community.

Accounting for Additionality

Industry standards require that “[carbon] reductions achieved by a project need to be 'additional' to what would have happened if the project had not been carried out.”  Without this requirement, we cannot guarantee that a carbon sequestration project is actually making an impact beyond what would have otherwise naturally occurred. 

Additionality is particularly difficult to determine in agriculture-based carbon projects. This is because agricultural projects are driven by a myriad of factors, including the soil types and weather conditions of the farms included in a project, the changes required by the project, cultural influences on the farmers themselves, the financial accessibility of the practices in each project, and others. 

The USDA describes this conundrum well:  “Once a [program has begun] and required practice(s) are in use, however, it is not possible to observe whether the farmer would have adopted the practice(s) without the [program].” In other words, we cannot predict what a farmer would or would not do on their land outside of a carbon project, and therefore we cannot accurately take credit for the outcomes of that project.

Measuring Permanence

Another factor  in measuring carbon sequestration efforts is the concept of permanence. ‘Permanence,’ in carbon accounting, requires that the carbon sequestered in a project must be kept out of the atmosphere for a specific period of time. Currently, the common timeframe for permanence is 100 years, though this requirement is being actively debated in academic communities. 

Guaranteeing permanence for this duration of time is tricky for land-based projects. When carbon is sequestered in land, trees and vegetation (as in farm- and forest-based projects), there is a chance that the carbon will be released back into the atmosphere through deforestation, forest fires, soil erosion, and other factors.

For this reason, it can be difficult to accurately predict the permanence of a land-based carbon sequestration project. 100 years is long enough to outlast a carbon project, a host organization, or a regulatory agency. If the governing bodies of a carbon project change, we will be unable to accurately ensure that our carbon projects are having a lasting effect on our environment.

The Future of Carbon Sequestration Efforts

There are a lot of variables when it comes to land-based carbon sequestration projects. Some of these variables, including the concepts of additionality and permanence, pose a significant threat to the validity of these carbon projects. 

Undoubtedly, our industry must evolve to better determine additionality and permanence and find balanced ways to effectively fold these concepts into our carbon insetting and offsetting systems to reflect both the best available science as well as the realities on the ground. Industry standards like CAR and Verra are working on this evolution, but as with all things, it will require time and collaboration from partners across the industry. 

The difficulties we face are significant. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to invest in land-based carbon projects.

We need investment in order to enhance these projects. Investment leads to progress in the science behind carbon projects, and increased resources in measuring the impact of such efforts. As with any emerging industry, the barriers to our success shouldn’t turn us away from the effort itself.

What does the future hold for land-based carbon sequestration projects? At Regrow, we hope the future holds several things: 

We hope for more buy-in from the communities that source from our land. We hope for clearer guidance, research and support for carbon sequestration efforts. We hope that the guidelines around additionality and permanence are continuously refined, and for a better way to incorporate these concepts into our carbon accounting. Ultimately, we hope to utilize our land effectively to mitigate climate change — and we feel confident that our science and technology can get us there.

It’s our responsibility to stick to the less than 2℃ threshold outlined by the Paris Climate Agreement. In order to do this, we must collaborate across land-based industries, and collectively invest in finding new ways to understand and support carbon programs.

Learn why it’s important to invest in the science behind soil carbon estimation, and see how you can develop your own carbon project.

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