Carbon Offsets 101: Soil Primer

Sophie Janaskie
June 4, 2021

CARBON OFFSETS 101: Soil Carbon Sequestration


Soil is a large, natural carbon sink, holding three times the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. However, since inventing agriculture, people have reduced the carbon content of cultivated soils by 50-70%. When farmers use regenerative farming practices to store carbon from the atmosphere in the earth, they restore nature’s carbon cycle and boost soil health. Project Drawdown estimates that regenerative annual cropping can sequester 14.52-22.27 gigatons of CO2e between 2020 and 2050.


How does it work?


All living things contain carbon. When plants and animals die and decompose, some of this carbon is returned to and stored in soil. This soil carbon plays an important role in maintaining soil health and quality. However, historical land use practices such as clearing forests and plowing land for crops has resulted in a significant loss of carbon from agricultural lands. A number of regenerative agricultural practices exist that can help increase the absorption of carbon by soils, including:


  • Low- or no-till practices, which prevents the release of carbon by keeping soil from being disturbed
  • Planting perennial crops, which also reduces the need to till and disturb soil
  • Planting cover crops in between periods of regular crop production, which reduces soil erosion and increases carbon and nitrogen stocks
  • Rotating crops by varying the type of crops grown in a particular field or area
  • Managed grazing of animals by rotating them between pastures, which naturally adds manure to the soil and encourages plant growth
  • Applying compost, manure, or other natural residues to fields


Adopting these practices, however, is viewed as risky by many farmers, as it requires them to make changes that could impact the yield of their crops. Providing support and financial incentives to farmers via soil carbon credit projects can help farmers transition to these regenerative practices.



Pros

We like soil carbon projects because they reinforce the natural carbon cycle and can directly support farmers who adopt regenerative practices.


  • Immediately implementable. Many of the agricultural practices listed above are not new and are able to be widely implemented.
  • Improved soil health. In addition to storing carbon, regenerative agricultural practices can also restore soil nutrients, improve soil’s resilience to flood and drought, and increase agricultural productivity.
  • Benefits to farmers. Soil carbon credit projects are a way to provide an additional revenue stream directly to farmers.


Cons

We are skeptical because soil carbon sequestration requires long-term dedication from landowners and can be difficult to measure and verify.


  • Vulnerable to reversal. Soil carbon can be easily released back to the atmosphere if soil is disturbed, either naturally or by people. Regenerative agricultural practices must be followed continuously and indefinitely for climate benefits to remain.
  • Difficult to measure. Soil carbon is currently difficult and costly to measure, Current verification standards are limited and are often viewed as prohibitively expensive or lacking rigor.


What Joro looks for

  • Contracts for longer-lived carbon storage. Because soil carbon sequestration is easily reversed, we look for projects that contractually guarantee that regenerative practices will be adhered to over the course of the proposed project life.
  • Reliable data monitoring. Given the challenges associated with soil carbon measurement, we look for projects that both openly publish their methodologies for review and make use of experienced third party data verifiers.


Projects we recommend


Joro supports two soil carbon projects through the Nori platform. Nori verifies this carbon sequestration through farm-level data collected through COMET-Farm, a tool funded by the USDA and developed by Colorado State University. These projects are:


  • Grassroots Carbon is a public benefit company that provides certified soil carbon storage credits. They work with ranchers and farmers using regenerative farming practices that help the soil capture more carbon. Their goal is to create the most scientifically rigorous and rancher-friendly soil carbon credit possible. To do so, they follow the bCarbon standard to certify their projects. They also support ranchers’ switch to regenerative practices by helping them access necessary upfront capital.
  • Nori is a soil carbon credit marketplace that works with farmers to provide quantification and verification of transparent, blockchain-based carbon removals. When Ullrich Farms and other small to medium food and fibre producers sell carbon credits in Nori’s marketplace, they access additional revenue and incentives to continue and expand sustainable farming practices. Third-party verifications aren’t yet standard for soil carbon credits, so we do our own thorough research and consult third-party evaluations like those from Shopify.


Sources



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