Carbon markets in agriculture are the next big thing

Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.

I knew I wanted to focus my career on protecting the world’s great places, says Robert Parkhurst, pictured snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2006 California passed AB 32, legislation requiring the state’s Air Resources Board to develop market mechanisms to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It was a watershed moment, and I was lucky enough to be at the event where Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill.

Even back then I saw the potential for environmental markets to improve climate stability by engaging, rather than penalizing, business. That’s why I’ve spent the past 10 years – seven with electric and information technology companies and the most recent three at Environmental Defense Fund – working to make agricultural GHG reduction programs a reality.

But my passion for conservation started long before passage of AB 32. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent nearly all my free time outdoors, largely through Boy Scouts where I became an Eagle Scout. The moment I earned merit badges for water and soil conservation, I knew I wanted to focus my career on solving environmental challenges and protecting the world’s great places. I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend Thanksgiving atop Mount Kilimanjaro, Christmas on the Great Barrier Reef, and New Year’s Eve soaking in the natural beauty of New Zealand.

I believe carbon markets are the best tool we have for limiting emissions from agriculture, maintaining yields, and ensuring a food secure future.

These days my camping excursions involve my son and daughter, who are lobbying me to buy a plug-in electric car. Seeing my kids share that same excitement for solving environmental challenges brings a smile to my face like nothing else can.

That’s why I’m working to build a $2 billion market for agricultural greenhouse gas reductions by the end of 2020. I believe carbon markets are the best tool we have for limiting emissions from agriculture, maintaining yields, and ensuring a food secure future.

Ag and farmers are key

Agriculture is critical to the success of carbon markets because the global emissions from tilling, manure use, and enteric fermentation (the scientific term for cow burps) are enormous – accounting for roughly 25 percent of the planet’s GHG emissions.  Historically we have focused on energy generation and transportation, but agriculture is an important and untapped part of the climate solution.

We can now calculate the GHG emissions reduced through implementation of certain farming practices — which wasn’t possible even four years ago.

Grassland preservation, for example, can sequester carbon in plants and soils, and practices like early drainage of rice fields can reduce methane emissions. These practices don’t just reduce carbon in the atmosphere, they make fields more resilient and allow growers to generate credits that can be sold on the market.

Carbon markets make $ense

Farmers can now generate offsets as part of the new rice protocol.

Rice farmers can now generate offsets by implementing practices that reduce methane emissions.

I’ve partnered with rice farmers in the mid-South, corn growers in the Midwest, almond producers in California, and cattlemen in Colorado. It’s not easy to rely on land and unpredictable weather for your livelihood – so the one thing these growers have in common is an openness to explore new sources of revenue. Many of them have four or even five sources of income.

The income generated from carbon markets is not yet huge, but the markets are expanding and the price per ton of avoided emissions keeps going up. In California, there are 350 buyers for GHG reductions from agriculture, but that number will increase substantially as two additional Canadian provinces join California’s market in the next two years. And the really exciting part is that growers don’t have to live in California or Canada to participate in these markets – they can be anywhere in the U.S. where the crop is grown and there is a protocol which has been adopted.

To be successful, carbon markets must make economic sense to growers. That’s why I’ll keep working at EDF – an organization that thrives on environmental pragmatism. And I’ll keep working with our agricultural partners to make sure that carbon markets benefit both the planet and a grower’s bottom line.

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