Dow Jones Step Aside: Here Comes the Soil Carbon Market

By Don Comis / / February 21, 2001

Cropland and grassland in the United States could potentially store enough carbon to offset 12 to 14 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted from vehicle tailpipes and industrial smokestacks in this country. That's the conclusion based on the first national estimate of how much carbon these lands are storing or sequestering and how much more they could store. Marlen D. Eve, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins, Colo., and colleagues developed the actual storage estimate for use in international climate-change agreement discussions: 20 million tons of carbon a year.

Eve's colleagues--Ron Follett, John W. Kimble and Rattan Lal--have calculated that improved management could boost that total to as much as 200 million tons. At $20 a ton, which is the price at which stored carbon credits are projected to be sold for within a decade, this means the U.S. could potentially store about $4 billion worth of carbon a year on the nation's farmlands and grasslands. Typical rates of carbon sequestration can be from one-half up to a ton of carbon each year.

"Carbon Boards of Trade" are beginning to proliferate on the Internet, including a global exchange that offers a low price of $2.35 to $2.50 for carbon in the United States. Even the Chicago Board of Trade is considering adding a carbon exchange market.

All of this comes about as international agreements and domestic policies in the U.S. and elsewhere make it likely that farmers will be paid in some way for storing carbon in their soils. Farmers might sell credits for storing carbon, just as pollution credits are currently traded. Or they might receive financial assistance for using carbon-conserving practices. The pressure to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide is driving the "carbon conservation payments" movement.

You can read more about ARS carbon storage research in the February issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency. Scientific contact: Ron Follett, ARS Soil, Plant and Nutrient Research Unit, Fort Collins, Colo., phone (970) 490-8200, fax (970) 490-8213,