Is EU making same mistake as US ‘carbon-farming’ gamble?

When the European Commission unveiled its strategy to boost carbon capture on farmland last year, both farmers and green groups were rather lukewarm about the proposal.

Known as “carbon farming”, the scheme promises to create a new revenue stream for farmers for the amount of carbon stored in the soil. The idea is that agricultural soils can remove carbon from the atmosphere and compensate for at least some ongoing emissions.

However, before the release of its proposed carbon removals legislation on November 30th, the Commission must address several issues that stand in the way of aligning European farming with the EU’s climate ambitions.

First, the IPCC’s latest assessment unequivocally states that removals cannot be a substitute for emissions reductions. Emissions must rapidly come down this decade for a chance to limit unsustainable temperature rise. The framework must therefore not become a distraction from this existential task. It must not serve as a loophole for big polluters to hide their emissions.

Second, the commission should learn from the US experience. Carbon farming credits have been in existence there for more than a decade without making a meaningful impact on climate action. From the ease with which carbon is lost from soils, the lack of accurate measurement to the economic risk for farmers, there are several reasons to be skeptical about these schemes.

For instance, an emerging body of research calls into question whether establishing credible, high integrity soil carbon offsets is possible given the complexities and uncertainty in measuring soil carbon.

An analysis of soil carbon testing found 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 predicted, thereby unraveling sequestration that has occurred.

It has also been difficult for carbon consultants to convince US farmers that these projects make economic sense.

Carbon credit schemes that are more robust in monitoring, reporting and verification are costly for farmers to adopt. An Arkansas rice farmer explained to Congress that he only made $133 [€131] on 200 acres put into a carbon credit project, which is not nearly enough to justify the project.

Big Agri data-harvesting?

High costs for project developers and farmers to run these schemes means that these offset projects have primarily benefited large-scale farms, raising concerns that corporate investment in carbon markets will contribute to further consolidation of agricultural land and disadvantage small to mid-sized farmers.

Additional issues arise for farmers who are renting land, including who owns credits that are generated. For example, it is still not clear what the legal obligations and risks to renters are, and how long-term credit obligations may affect the sale of farmland.

These schemes also require farmers to share enormous amounts of data about what is happening on their farm, including annual information about planting, seeds, fertilizer use, equipment and harvest.

Many US farmers are concerned about who controls that data and who is benefiting.

Major global agribusiness firms like Cargill, Bayer and Corteva have created their own on-farm data systems that give companies unprecedented access to what is happening on individual farms, as well as aggregate data on many farms — all of which would be privately-held and controlled. These are often the same companies on which farmers depend for purchasing farm inputs, hence creating a conflict-of-interest situation.

Alarm bells

All in all, the US experience with carbon farming should ring alarm bells in the EU. Despite some interest from companies in farm-based carbon offsets, there is currently no push to develop a government-run carbon market at the US federal level.

Even a limited bill for setting common standards for private offset credits has not passed Congress, facing opposition from 220 environmental and farm organizations.

The current commission should revisit its carbon farming plans and consider other instruments to support farmers transitioning to climate-friendly agriculture. The EU’s farming 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 enormous potential to be a game changer for sustainable farming in Europe.

The CAP will be up for renewal within the same time frame it would take to set up carbon farming certification schemes.

Rather than gamble with carbon credits, the billions of euros of CAP money must be redirected towards policies that can truly help European farmers meet the EU’s climate goals. This would allow lawmakers to build their historical legacy on creating a just transition for farmers and contributing to the EU’s climate ambition.

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