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After too many years of inaction, climate policies are rapidly being introduced at the state and federal levels. Despite their poor track record, carbon markets feature heavily in many forthcoming climate policy proposals. A new factsheet jointly released by IATP and the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) details why carbon markets will not work for agriculture.

A carbon market sets a cap on allowable greenhouse gas emissions. The government issues emissions credits that add up to this cap, and covered entities (e.g., industrial facilities, utilities, fuel suppliers) can buy and sell these credits as necessary. In practice, these markets are full of loopholes that allow polluters to continue to pollute.

Many carbon markets allow offsets, where a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in one sector is allowed to compensate for emissions elsewhere. Agriculture is a unique industry in that it can act as a carbon sink; certain agroecological practices – including diversifying crop rotations, planting cover crops and reducing tillage – can sequester carbon. In the context of a carbon market, carbon sequestered through agriculture can be used to offset another industry’s pollution.

Treating agricultural land narrowly as a carbon sink undermines more effective and holistic agricultural practices. Other benefits of regenerative agriculture become secondary, including production for local food systems, healthier soils and water and farm resilience to climate impacts. This brings a range of social, economic and food justice concerns, particularly in areas where corporate retailers are divesting from rural communities.

Elizabeth Henderson, a farmer in New York, says, “As a farmer, I reject solutions like carbon markets that leave power in the hands of the dominant corporations that have led us to the farm crisis we have been living through. Instead, we need public policy that incentivizes a culture of soil health, paying farmers for healthy soils practices and the ecological services that come with them, like reducing erosion, building farm resilience to climate extremes of drought and heavy rains and increasing soil carbon.”

Offset projects in a carbon market tend to work best for 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. Focusing on resilient agroecological systems rather than on the amount of carbon sequestered can benefit farmers of all sizes.

Addressing the climate crisis and ensuring a just transition to regenerative agricultural practices will take forward-thinking public investment combined with strong regulation. This must be linked to strong antitrust enforcement, checks on corporate power and limitations on industry access to public programs targeted for family farmers. Carbon markets will not get us there. They let big polluters off the hook, fail the needs of the family farming sector and ignore innovative community-based approaches.

As Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman says, “The last thing we should be doing is turning carbon into another commodity to be sold or traded in the global economy. Carbon markets will do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. All they will do is create another way for polluters to profit from their lack of environmental concern.”

You can read the full factsheet here.

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