Today, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Braun (R-IN) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill that would create a certification program through USDA to facilitate farmer participation in voluntary carbon markets. Although farmers should be incentivized to adopt practices that boost resilience and sequester carbon, carbon markets have a failed and wasteful track record compared to public investments in proven conservation programs. This bill would tee up a framework incentivizing false solutions to climate change that benefits private companies over farmers.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act is designed to help farmers overcome barriers to participation in voluntary carbon markets. It would do this by establishing a USDA certification for third-party verifiers, which would include standards for measurement, verification, monitoring and reporting. It would also create an online “one stop shop” to provide information for interested farmers, offer explanations on how to get started with generating carbon credits and connect farmers with USDA-certified entities to provide technical assistance. The bill also contains provisions to keep USDA up-to-speed on the rapidly-expanding landscape of carbon markets.
Voluntary carbon markets are privately-run schemes that pay farmers for carbon sequestered in their soils to generate carbon credits. Then, the company running the carbon market sells those credits to other companies or individuals interested in reducing their carbon footprint. Companies such as Indigo Ag and Nori are starting up voluntary carbon markets, claiming that they will increase farm profits while addressing climate change, all without imposing government regulations on farmers. Yet, Indigo Ag also plans to sell farmers proprietary seed coatings and collect farm data, raising questions of who will benefit most. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest backers of these schemes are large agribusiness companies, including ADM, Bunge, Cargill and more, that will be able to generate, buy and sell carbon credits to boost their profits and greenwash their own operations.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act sets up a weak verification system for the markets. The system relies on third-party entities to both provide technical assistance and verify the carbon credits. Allowing an entity to both consult on best practices and certify adherence to those practices could lead to conflicts of interest. In addition, verifying entities may self-register in the program simply by notifying USDA that they will “maintain expertise in and adhere to the standards published.” This type of self-reporting will almost certainly be abused, and without strict enforcement it will weaken the results of already flawed carbon markets. The bill states that USDA will periodically conduct audits of the verifiers, although the bill does not say how often or rigorously these audits will happen, and the penalty for noncompliance is simply “equal to such amount as the Secretary determines to be appropriate.”
In addition to weaknesses around verification, carbon markets do not effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and should not be supported by policy. Soil carbon storage is extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or through severe weather events. Since voluntary carbon markets do not require farmers to engage in conservation activities permanently, carbon credits cannot serve as a permanent offset for emissions elsewhere. Furthermore, the tools to measure soil carbon to the degree of accuracy and reliability that a market would require do not currently exist. The Growing Climate Solutions Act attempts to standardize measurement across carbon markets, but without certainty that the measurements used are accurate, quantifying soil carbon is a guessing game and does not guarantee actual emissions reductions.
Despite claims that voluntary carbon markets will incentivize climate-friendly agriculture, paying farmers for soil carbon offsets treats agricultural land narrowly as a carbon sink. Production for local food systems becomes a secondary function of farmland, bringing with it a range of social, economic and food justice concerns. Agriculture should be viewed holistically; there are multiple benefits of a climate-friendly agricultural system, including healthier soils, clean water, wildlife habitat and farm resilience to drought and flooding. Integrated systems of practices based on agroecology have the greatest potential to build resilience in the face of climate change, mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in the soil. Practices designed narrowly to generate carbon credits will not lead to comprehensive, systems-based changes.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, agricultural consolidation has led to weaknesses in the supply chain and a food system that’s unable to withstand disruptions. Climate solutions for agriculture must address and lessen corporate concentration in the agriculture sector. However, offset projects work best for large-scale farms that have the economies of scale to implement practices on enough land to actually profit from generating carbon credits. This raises concerns that carbon markets will contribute to further consolidation of agricultural land and disadvantage small to mid-sized farmers.
Today’s downturned farm economy has left farmers struggling to hold onto their operations. There’s an urgent need to reward farmers for practices that address climate change while increasing their operations’ resilience to climate change. However, successful and stable approaches cannot be linked to dysfunctional and volatile markets. Instead, predictable public funding can support farmers to implement conservation practices for the long term. Federal programs including the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program are examples of such funding sources. These programs are routinely over-enrolled and require additional funding to meet the demand of farmers. In addition, some states have created their own programs to address these challenges, including the cover crop program through the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the California Healthy Soils Program. These types of approaches should be expanded and strengthened to build forward-thinking public investment in a decentralized and resilient agricultural system.
There are better bills on the table to meet the goals of maximizing soil carbon sequestration and reducing emissions from agriculture, including Representative Chellie Pingree’s (D-ME) Agriculture Resilience Act and Senator Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) Climate Stewardship Act. To support farmers while meeting the urgency of the climate crisis, Congress should take proactive efforts to scale up public resources for conservation practices while enacting common sense checks on corporate concentration in the agriculture sector.