When the European Commission unveiled its strategy to boost carbon capture on farmland last year, farmers and environmental groups were lukewarm about the proposal.
Known as “carbon farming”, the program promises to create a new source of income for farmers for the amount of carbon stored in the soil. The idea is that agricultural soils can remove carbon from the atmosphere and offset at least some ongoing emissions.
However, before the publication of its proposed carbon removals legislation on November 30, the Commission needs to address several issues that stand in the way of aligning European agriculture with EU climate ambitions.
First, the latest IPCC assessment unequivocally indicates that removals cannot substitute for emission reductions. Emissions must fall rapidly during this decade to have any chance of limiting the unsustainable rise in temperature. The frame should therefore not become a distraction from this existential task. It should not be used as a loophole for big polluters to hide their emissions.
Second, the commission should learn from the American experience. Agricultural carbon credits have been around for over a decade without having a significant impact on climate action. From the ease with which carbon is lost from soils, from the lack of precise measurement to the economic risk to farmers, there are several reasons to be skeptical about these programs.
For example, a body of emerging research questions the feasibility of establishing credible, high-integrity soil carbon offsets given the complexity and uncertainty of soil carbon measurement.
An analysis of soil carbon testing revealed that typical testing practices overestimate the level of sequestration by sampling too close to the surface.
Another study found that rising temperatures predicted by climate change will release carbon from the soil much faster than previously expected, unraveling the sequestration that has occurred.
It has also been difficult for carbon consultants to convince American farmers that these projects make economic sense.
Carbon credit systems that are more robust in terms of tracking, reporting and verification are costly for farmers to adopt. Arkansas rice farmer tells Congress he only makes $133 [€131] over 200 acres put into a carbon credit project, which is nowhere near enough to justify the project.
Big Agri data collection?
The high costs for project developers and farmers to run these schemes mean that these offset projects have mostly benefited large farms, raising concerns that corporate investment in carbon markets could further shore up land. agriculture and disadvantages small and medium-sized farmers.
Additional issues arise for farmers who lease land, including who owns the credits generated. For example, it is still unclear what the legal obligations and risks for tenants are, and how long-term credit obligations may affect the sale of farmland.
These programs also require farmers to share huge amounts of data about what is happening on their farm, including annual information on planting, seeds, fertilizer use, equipment and harvest.
Many American farmers wonder who controls this data and who benefits from it.
Major global agribusinesses such as Cargill, Bayer and Corteva have created their own on-farm data systems that give companies unprecedented access to what’s happening on individual farms, as well as aggregated data across many farms – all of which would be private and controlled. These are often the same companies that farmers depend on for the purchase of agricultural inputs, thus creating a situation of conflict of interest.
Taken as a whole, the US experiment in carbon farming should sound alarm bells in the EU. Despite some corporate interest in agriculture-based carbon offsets, there is currently no pressure to develop a government-run carbon market at the US federal level.
Even a limited bill to establish common standards for private offset credits failed to pass Congress, amid opposition from 220 environmental and agricultural organizations.
The current commission should review its carbon farming plans and consider other instruments to help farmers switch to climate-friendly agriculture. The EU’s agricultural support program — known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) — is one of the richest agricultural schemes in the world. It has the instruments, the budget and the huge potential to be a game-changer for sustainable agriculture in Europe.
The CAP will have to be renewed within the same time frame as it would take to set up carbon farming certification systems.
Rather than gambling with carbon credits, billions of euros of CAP money must be redirected to policies that can actually help European farmers achieve EU climate goals. This would allow lawmakers to build their historic legacy on creating a just transition for farmers and contributing to EU climate ambition.