The conference “Carbon Farming – New potential for farmers or greenwashing,” organized by three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the European Greens/European Free Alliance — Benoit Biteau, Bas Eickhout and Martin Häusling — on February 7 brought together policymakers, researchers and civil society to discuss risks and potential of carbon farming. Adjusting farming practices to manage greenhouse gas emissions and sequester CO2 in soil and vegetation, known as carbon farming, has become a controversial affair in the context of the Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF) proposed by the European Commission (EC) as it risks leading the way to EU-certified offset credits from agriculture.
Ben Lilliston, IATP’s director of rural strategies and climate change, joined the conference via a video presentation. He highlighted eight key concerns about carbon farming schemes dependent on carbon markets based on the United States’ experience. Voluntary carbon markets in the U.S. are an unregulated “wild west” of carbon credits. Farmers are price takers in a largely corporate-controlled carbon credit market. Prices for agriculture carbon credits are often too low to cover farmers’ costs for project implementation. Larger farms are advantaged in the carbon credit marketplace, raising concerns about further farm consolidation. Farmers are also concerned about the amount of farm data that private companies require them to share and how that data will be used. In addition, carbon farming contracts pose legal risks for farmers, restricting their ability to adapt their farming practices to climate change, while requiring them to guarantee the carbon storage’s permanence despite high risk for reversibility. Lilliston also pointed to current research showing that compliance markets in the U.S. using land-based offsets have not delivered emissions reductions as expected. Lilliston concluded his presentation by emphasizing that instead of relying on carbon farming schemes to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint, predictable and accessible public finance for agroecology should drive the needed transformation.
Also at the conference, Christian Holzleitner, the EC’s representative from its climate division, downplayed the impacts that the CRCF will have, calling it a “no regret option.” He said the CRCF would only be a “first stepping-stone towards comprehensive 2040 policy on carbon removals,” providing a tool for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of removal projects as “we still need to learn how much carbon we can store.”
The presentations of the German and the French national agriculture research institutes underlined the uncertainty of soil carbon storage. Their respective studies showed significantly different potentials for carbon sequestration from the agriculture sector in the two countries, ranging from a 3-6 million tonnes CO2eq soil carbon sequestration potential in Germany compared to 28 million tonnes CO2eq annually in France. These discrepancies once again demonstrate the great variance and uncertainty around measuring soil carbon and call into question the EU’s potential to use soil carbon storage as a climate mitigation tool. Several panelists, including MEP Häusling, addressed the threat of the offset approach of the CRCF in delaying real emissions reductions.
Several panelists also pointed to the need for a holistic approach to agriculture to address more than carbon emissions. Hanna Winkler, representative of IFOAM Organics Europe, stressed that “so-called co-benefits [such as biodiversity and soil health] are actually prerequisites or a condition for carbon sequestration and climate adaptation.” Instead of following a carbon market logic, she argued that the EU should address the “public policy tool [the Common Agricultural Policy/CAP], which is in a crisis of legitimacy at the moment because it does not contribute enough to the objectives of the Green Deal. We should move to a CAP model that remunerates farmers for the public good they are providing.”
In his conclusions, Green MEP Bas Eickhout rightly responded that EU agriculture policy must fundamentally be reformed to make real climate impact in the sector, stating “people are more concerned about the future of the agriculture model that is fully liberalized and that is more and more gaining ground for the big industry.” In line with IATP’s analysis, he stated that the CRCF “proposal is further helping industry to grab additional carbon credits and earn money.” He cautioned that we are taking the wrong order of action with the CRCF by leaving the transformation of agriculture to the future instead of addressing it now, also pointing to the global significance of this initiative: “While we are still not debating a different agricultural model and while we are having a [CRCF] proposal on the table with an open-ended delegated act, we are at the same time setting a global precedent. What we are doing here will impact also future decisions of other regions in the world that might look at doing this as well. So, we better get it right.”