How Congress can ensure voluntary carbon markets work for farmers and the environment

Voluntary agricultural carbon markets, although currently in their infancy, have the potential to increase adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices by generating new revenue streams for producers who cut emissions or sequester carbon, while also increasing climate resilience.

Voluntary carbon markets, however, currently involve multiple carbon registries and protocols for different types of emissions reduction and carbon removal practices, with variable measurement and accounting approaches. This variation means that farmers, other credit developers and purchasers risk investing in poorly quantified and potentially reversible climate benefits.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must act now to help ensure voluntary agricultural carbon markets work for farmers and the environment. Today, I testified before the House Agriculture Committee about three ways that they can best do this.

1. Prioritize “shovel-ready” projects.

Storing carbon in soils is an important climate solution, but scientists and credit protocol developers still have a lot to learn about how best to account for net soil carbon sequestration rigorously but affordably, and how to ensure credits for sequestration are comparable and consistent.

In the meantime, policies and incentives should prioritize practices that are “shovel ready” and already have high scientific consensus about their ability to deliver durable climate benefits.

This includes prioritizing avoided emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide that primarily comes from excess fertilizer not used by crops. It also means prioritizing avoided emissions of methane, which is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and responsible for more than a quarter of today’s warming. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could also include greater energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources.

Now is precisely the time for Congress and USDA to ensure voluntary agricultural carbon markets work for farmers and the environment. Share on X

2. Set consistent guardrails to protect farmers and the climate.

The private sector is already engaging in voluntary carbon markets, and farmers are already being paid for their environmental outcomes, but approaches to accounting for those environmental benefits vary significantly. There is no referee on the field to ensure consistency in measuring, reporting or verifying emissions reductions. USDA could play this role.

Without better standards, voluntary markets will struggle to deliver credible and durable climate results. As a result, participating in voluntary markets may be financially risky for farmers investing in climate-smart practices and reputationally risky for companies investing in credits.

Congress can help provide clarity by establishing a framework for quality assurance. The framework wouldn’t prescribe the use of specific protocols. Instead, it would set quality criteria that protocols and climate registries should adhere to for credits to be comparable, equivalent and high integrity.

Assessment of carbon crediting protocols by USDA or a neutral third party could also identify ways to move from isolated projects to a landscape-scale approach that can address reversal, additionality and permanence, and ensure equitable access to markets.

A Black female farmer and/or rancher looks at the camera while leaning on the railing around an animal pen. Her hair is in a high ponytail, and she is wearing a blue jumpsuit.

3. Equip farmers with technical assistance.

Technical assistance isn’t glamorous, but it’s essential for voluntary agricultural carbon markets to be successful and equitable.

On-the-ground support and teaching from trusted partners helps farmers and ranchers overcome knowledge, financial and administrative barriers that keep them from adopting climate-smart practices or participating in markets.

Technical assistance can also advance equitable market access. Large farming operations, for example, have different economies of scale, face lower prices for inputs, have better access to finance and can more easily engage in climate-smart activities compared to smaller farming operations. Technical assistance that accounts for differences based on farm size and other factors should help smaller farms and historically underrepresented producers participate in voluntary markets.

Voluntary carbon markets have the potential to increase investment in agricultural climate solutions and deliver important benefits for the climate, farmers, ranchers and foresters. The same practices that increase soil organic carbon, for example, also build drought resilience by increasing soil water holding capacity and can help reduce runoff of nutrients and sediments into waterways.

To fully tap into that potential, Congress and USDA must prioritize proven climate mitigation and adaptation approaches, set standards for high-quality credits to boost market integrity, and ensure farmers have equitable access to voluntary markets.

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