Improving soil carbon isn’t dirt cheap

The biofuels industry is one of the first to be presented with the actual requirements behind the EU’s drive to increase soil carbon, a part of the ‘Fit for 55’ package, first published in July 2021. Detailed rules to justify an extra greenhouse saving from increased soil carbon levels are due to be approved soon. Farmers must prove they have achieved higher soil carbon with extensive measurements, which are likely to be expensive and time consuming.  The conditions apply to biofuels and biogas producers using crops as raw materials. 

Soil acts as a huge store for carbon worldwide. The new concept of ‘carbon farming’ and the monetisation of carbon stored in the soil, have both been heralded as a new way of rewarding farmers for reducing their impacts on the climate. The stored carbon would be packaged for the offsetting market, with sales to corporates providing a new source of income for the agricultural sector. However, a reasonable level of verification of the offsets would be required. But measurements are problematical. A World Bank sourcebook on monitoring soil organic carbon says ‘changes in soil carbon can be relatively small in magnitude per unit area and slow to be fully achieved, while its measurement and monitoring can be difficult and costly’. This advice seems to have been bypassed by officials drafting the new rules for biofuels operators.  

Equally importantly, all of this monitoring will have been wasted if the farmer does not keep up with the measures that led to sequestration of soil carbon in the first place. Under certain circumstances, at least some, if not all of the stored carbon would be discharged back to the atmosphere. For this and other reasons, commentators have voiced their doubts about the introduction of carbon trading into agriculture. They have suggested that re-aligning existing state payments to farmers with improvements to their agricultural practices is a simpler and more cost effective solution.

European biofuels and biogas operators will have to adapt to the new rules for greenhouse gas accounting. Those that don’t need the extra savings from soil carbon to pass the greenhouse gas emissions saving threshold can abandon it. Others could achieve the required carbon savings another way.  Hopefully, an important lesson will be learned when the dust has settled. Namely, that farming out carbon savings to sectors where it is too difficult or too costly to verify them, won’t help the fight against climate change.

Published: 5 October 21

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