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The New Fall Crop for Rice Farmers: Carbon Offsets

rp_robert-200x300.jpgThis September, a new crop will be made available to rice producers: carbon offsets.

The California Air Resources Board (ARB) took another important step forward last week when it published the latest draft standard for the development of carbon offsets. The standard lays out the steps a producer needs to take in order to sell his new crop. Once it is approved, producers will be able grow and sell it as a new revenue stream.

So how does this work?

Rice fields are flooded as a part of growing this worldwide staple. It’s necessary for its growth. However, when water comes in contact with organic matter, the organic matter decomposes, generating methane – a strong greenhouse gas. By reducing the amount of methane generated through rice cultivation, a farmer can generate a carbon credit that can be sold to companies to offset their carbon emissions.

What are the practices that produce credits? Read More »

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Fertilizer-Efficiency Credits Seed the Market for Agricultural Offsets

Robert ParkhurstFertilizer use is key to increasing the productivity necessary for farms to feed rising populations.  However, not using the right amount in the right place at the right time is one of the biggest threats to a stable climate. Nitrogen fertilizer not used by crops emits nitrous oxide, a heat-trapping gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It also contaminates water supplies, causes algae blooms downstream and erodes soil health.

So, it was welcome news last week when the first greenhouse gas credits for fertilizer efficiency made their debut in the North American carbon market.

The American Carbon Registry issued the credits to Myron Ortner, a central Michigan farmer who voluntarily reduced nitrous oxide emissions from his crops by modifying his fertilizer use. Working closely with researchers at Michigan State University, Ortner tested fertilizer inputs on a 40-acre plot where he grows corn and soybeans in rotation. In an interview with Scientific American, he said he’s down to using 135 pounds of fertilizer per acre, less than the average 200.

“I found out we can use less nitrogen and get away with it through those studies,” Ortner told the publication. “I want a few more years on it before I’m going to commit all my acres to it, but I don’t think I’ve lost any yield by doing what we’re doing.” Read More »

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Spreading Good News About the Compost Protocol

robertThere’s a growing excitement around spreading compost on rangelands to help fight climate change. Over the past four years we have learned that grazed rangelands are really good at pulling carbon out of the air and sequestering it in the soil below. And if you add compost just one time, you can capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for more than seven years. Plus, you’ll  increase  both the quality of the grasses and the ability of the soils to hold water. If we scaled this to just 5 % of California’s rangelands, we could capture approximately 28 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is about the same as the annual emissions from all the homes in California.

To measure the capture of CO2, we collaborated with Terra Global Capital to create a protocol to calculate the amount of CO2 and enable ranchers to generate carbon offsets which they can sell on the voluntary carbon market. Right now we’re  in the middle of a public comment period for this protocol –  Emissions Reductions from Compost Additions to Grazed Grasslands. After public comment is over the protocol will go through a peer review period, and then be approved and published by the American Carbon Registry.  A copy of the protocol and instructions for providing comments is available here.

This protocol quantifies the emission reductions from diverting organic materials from landfills and spreading it on rangeland to spur carbon capturing grass growth. Recent waste studies estimate that approximately 72% of the waste stream going to landfills is organic (6% wood, 7% textiles/leather, 13% yard debris, 12% food scraps, 34% paper). By accurately measuring how much we divert and sequester, we can also correctly reward landowners for their good work. With our partners, University of California at Berkeley and the Marin Carbon Project, we’ve already seen the beneficial impacts through pilot projects on rangeland in Marin, Sonoma, and Yuba counties. Read More »

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Spring Cultivates Rice Offsets

rp_robert-200x300.jpgThe arrival of Spring can’t come soon enough for some, though it came early for the California offset market.  Three significant events will spur the development of carbon offsets from rice cultivation.  First, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) launched a rulemaking to adopt a compliance offset protocol for rice cultivation projects.  The American Carbon Registry (ACR) also approved a rice protocol for the Mid-South (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas).

And at EDF we announced the listing of the first California rice offset project with ACR.

As a part of ARB’s rulemaking, they released a discussion draft of a compliance offset protocol.  This protocol contained three different activities that growers can take to reduce the generation of methane associated with rice cultivation – dry seeding, early drainage, and alternate wetting and drying of fields.  All of these practices have been developed using the latest science and have been shown to reduce methane generation without impacting yield.  Methane is the second largest anthropogenic source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 9% of all U.S. GHG emissions from human activities.  Methane is also important because it is more than 20 times more potent a GHG than carbon dioxide.  At the meeting, the ARB stated that they intend to propose the protocol for consideration at the September 2014 Board meeting. Read More »

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Plow, or Preserve and Profit?

Konza Prairie Biological Station

This weekend, long-time Minneapolis Star Tribune outdoors columnist and reporter Dennis Anderson wrote a revelatory call to arms about the dire state of conservation in Minnesota:

“This ain’t working, and we need to try something different. Radically different.”

Directly to the West of Minnesota in the Prairie Pothole Region of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, annual losses of native grasslands have averaged approximately 50,000 acres per year since 2007, leading to a significant loss of soil carbon. High prices for commodity crops make it much more attractive to plow grasslands than to keep them intact.

What if a market-based initiative paid farmers and ranchers for keeping grasslands grass? A new carbon offset protocol announced yesterday may just do that.

The protocol officially titled the “Avoided Conversion of Grasslands and Shrublands to Crop Production” was developed through a partnership effort including Environmental Defense Fund, Duck’s Unlimited, The Climate Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Terra Global Capital and was funded in part by the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Innovation Grant.

Just approved by the American Carbon Registry, this first of its kind voluntary protocol will be best applied to grasslands in the Midwest. Producers of these offsets can sell them to any willing buyer in America. Ranchers in the Midwest already recognize the value of their land lies in the soil health below ground where the soil translates to healthy food for their cattle. Now these same producers can quantify this value and sell it through new environmental markets.

“This project provides Northern Great Plains producers with new ways to earn income from conservation activities, expanded opportunity for outdoor recreation and an opportunity to create jobs in their communities,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment. “The American Carbon Registry’s approval of this innovative ACoGS protocol enables vital projects like our partnership with Ducks Unlimited to preserve a treasured national landscape, while also preventing the release of greenhouse gas emissions.”

This first project the Under Secretary mentions, is estimated to perpetually conserve 5,000 – 6,000 acres of native mixed-grass prairie. The protection of grasslands will also indirectly protect 500-600 acres of seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands situated in the protected grasslands.

And these lands are protected not through onerous regulations or hollowed out federal conservation programs but through innovative new revenue streams for the agriculture sector from emerging environmental markets such as California’s carbon market.  Between now and 2020, companies in California can purchase more than 200 million metric tons of offsets.  This protocol has the opportunity to help supply that demand.

This is an exciting step forward for Midwest producers. By making ecosystems a part of the economy ranchers and their families will benefit from diverse opportunities to make more money off their land.


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EDF and rice partners granted $1.1 million to expand rice GHG offsets effort

The next exciting phase of developing greenhouse gas (GHG) offsets from rice production in the United States is now possible thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.  EDF’s second Conservation Innovation Grant project for rice GHG offsets will expand the first grant’s scope from California, the second leading rice-producing state (550,000 planted acres in 2010), to include Arkansas, the leading rice-producing state (1.8 million planted acres in 2010), as a model for other mid-southern states and will develop innovative technology to enable easier access to carbon markets. 

The new grant includes previous partners involved in the development of the rice methodology—California Rice Commission, Applied Geosolutions, LLC, and TerraGlobal Capital, LLC—as well as new partners—Winrock International, PRBO Conservation Science, USA Rice Federation and other leading rice industry associations and rice producers in each region. 

A Foundation: The first grant resulted in a methodology that provides a foundation for work to continue in California and begin in Arkansas.  California has been a successful testing ground for assessing offset potential because of its groundbreaking climate law co-authored by EDF, The Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which establishes a cap-and-trade system in 2012.  However, including other rice-producing states will greatly increase the opportunity for GHG reductions and offset credits from rice production.  If the California Air Resource Board adopts a rice carbon protocol, California rice growers stand to benefit in the state’s cap and trade program by selling GHG offsets to capped sectors, and other rice growers outside of California also will be able to participate in the compliance market to help meet California’s demand. 

Phase Two: The methodology is awaiting approval by two leading carbon registries — the Verified Carbon Standard and the American Carbon Registry (where it is now open for public comment)—and it will be adapted as needed for use in two pilot projects, one in California’s Sacramento Valley and the other led by Winrock International in the Delta Region of Eastern Arkansas. These initiatives will demonstrate the process of producing and selling offset credits generated by rice farmers to voluntary and potentially to compliance carbon markets, with particular focus on California’s cap-and-trade program.  Each project will field-test a subset of GHG-reducing practices suitable to the region, such as straw removal or altered water management.  The pilot projects will help determine which additional practices can be added to the methodology. 

In addition to pilot project results, we will analyze rice GHG reduction practices in other states using the De-Nitrification De-Composition (DNDC) model.  DNDC is a computer simulation model of carbon and nitrogen biogeochemistry in agro-ecosystems that can be used for predicting crop growth, soil temperature and moisture regimes, soil carbon dynamics, nitrogen leaching, and emissions of trace gases including nitrous oxide (N2O), nitric oxide (NO), dinitrogen (N2), ammonia (NH3), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2).  Used to analyze California rice’s GHG reduction potential, DNDC will be applied in other rice-producing states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas.  Practices such as mid-season drainage, which is currently not a feasible practice in California, may be more appropriate in other rice-growing states. 

Concurrently, a user-friendly technology will be developed for growers and aggregators to enable more accurate and cost-efficient quantification of GHG reductions.  Growers will test a tool that is accessible by personal computers and mobile devices, and they will also provide feedback on cost feasibility and process of the overall project.  Lessons learned will be widely distributed to other interested growers and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Since both rice-growing regions in California and Arkansas (known as a critical stretch of the Pacific Flyway and the rice and duck capital of the world, respectively) are key areas of habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other species of wildlife, the project will also strive to understand how rice management practices can minimize GHG emissions and maximize benefit to waterbirds.  PRBO Conservation Science, a bird conservation non-profit, will lead the analysis of potential impacts of selected growing practices in California using habitat quality indicators and optimization models, which can be adapted to other regions. 

Benefit to Farmers: Economic benefit estimates are based on California modeling of potential GHG reductions and cost studies. The three practices currently in the methodology and their potential for GHG reduction are: dry seeding (4%), removal of straw before flooding (8%), and reduced winter flooding (16%).  The break-even costs for these practices range from $3 to $79 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, though the break-even cost for straw removal, for example, is around $79, this cost can be reduced through sale of the straw, and as carbon prices increase once the compliance market begins, there may be a business advantage for some farmers.  Carbon markets could provide the additional value that enables a rice farmer to access these straw markets. Other practices yet to be analyzed may produce greater GHG savings, such as mid-season drainage in the mid-southern states, in which case economic return could be higher. 

A final goal of the project is to seek out regulatory approval of a rice carbon protocol, so that the GHG emission reductions achieved will have compliance value under a cap-and-trade program.

The project is expected to start in August and will conclude in 2014.

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