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Carbon Trading: A Hidden Threat to Soil Carbon Sequestration?

If something has a price tag, people consider its perceived monetary value. But what if, by measuring the value of our planet’s natural systems using dollar amounts alone, we are minimizing their true worth? And what if our focus on solving global problems with money is taking all of us, especially poorer countries, down the wrong road?

One global solution to the world’s climate challenges—soil carbon sequestration—may soon face the “threat of the price tag.”

A French climate proposal known as the 4 Per 1000 initiative—aimed at increasing the global stock of agricultural soil carbon by 0.4 percent per year on average—attracted worldwide support and media attention when it was officially launched at the December 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris. The initiative recognizes that good organic agriculture and grazing practices could increase the soil carbon stock and lead to cascading benefits, including improvements in areas such as soil fertility, climate resilience, the nutritional value of foods, and farmers’ livelihoods, all while reversing climate change (see previous Worldwatch blog). But the potential addition of carbon trading—a market-based tool to moderate carbon emissions—into the strategy raises serious concerns.

The principles of the 4 Per 1000 initiative will be clarified at a members-only meeting in the first half of 2016, to guide the projects supported by the initiative. As of now, it is unclear whether carbon trading will be part of the design, nor is it known how heavily this initiative will be branded as “a sink for current emissions,” rather than as a true means to reverse already-excessive past emissions in combination with emission-reduction strategies. However, the enthusiasm for carbon pricing at the Paris talks, together with the fact that the initiative’s goal of “0.4 percent annual increase of soil carbon stock” was back-calculated from current fossil fuel emissions (rather than based on the actual potential of soil carbon sequestration), raises serious concerns.

If carbon in the soil is priced and can be traded, will the 4 Per 1000 initiative be used as an emitter-funded tool to continue the use of intensive agricultural technologies that benefit big agricultural companies at the expense of the greater good? Or will it—as perceived by influential supporters, including the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements—constitute a step toward restoring broken agro-ecological systems and nourishing small-farmer communities from the ground up?

Critiques of the commercialization of soil carbon—and of carbon sequestration in general—are not new. Observers and activists have pointed to the social inequality created or exacerbated by some “low-carbon” development projects in developing countries, as well as their ineffective—and even negative—effects on emissions reduction. Some researchers have long concluded that the rationale of neo-liberal capitalism, on which the market mechanism for addressing climate change is built, has not and will not solve the problem, and may even worsen it.

The risk that a global-scale soil carbon initiative like 4 Per 1000 will open a new carbon market for big companies and financial speculation, leaving small farmers behind, is real—in part because of technical obstacles in measuring soil carbon stock. Another large danger lies in the broad definition of what counts as a soil carbon sequestration practice, since careful comparison shows that some practices are hugely more beneficial than others.

Technically, estimating soil carbon stock—how much carbon is in the soil—is difficult to measure accurately and in a way that yields comparable data, especially for small-scale, diverse, organic agricultural systems that have proven, in most cases, to perform the best in storing carbon underground. As a result, a fair assessment of performance for different agricultural systems is hard to guarantee. Large monocultures, which allow for easier measurement but which are much more detrimental to the environment, have the upper hand in demonstrating their impact on carbon sequestration, possibly masking the successes of the far stronger practices being used on smaller, more biodiverse farms.

Meanwhile, technologies such as genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops claim to be “climate-smart” because herbicides, rather than tilling, are used to control weeds. Less tilling, the argument goes, means less carbon loss from the soil. However, this practice of “conservation tillage” is fundamentally more destructive than organic no-till practices, which use cover crops—rather than tilling or chemicals—to suppress weeds. In conservation tillage, herbicides still disrupt the soil microbial activity that benefits crop growth and carbon storage, and they continue to harm the well-being of local communities.

Despite good intentions, a rush to scale up soil carbon sequestration, especially when tied to carbon offset and trading programs, may encourage further expansion of environmentally and socially harmful technologies. These technologies focus on the profit to big agribusinesses, rather than protecting diverse agro-ecological systems and small farmers against the encroachment of “climate-smart” monocultures.

This danger could be prevented by clear principles that prioritize the well-being of small farming communities, organic agriculture, and agroforestry. But will these be reflected in the soon-to-be decided principles of the 4 Per 1000 initiative? When questioned about the possibility that large-scale implementation of the initiative would compromise the rights and welfare of small farmers, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle with the French Ministry of Agriculture, Agri-food and Forestry assured that “small farmers and family farmers are at the center of the initiative.”

Geslain-Lanéelle’s remark is consistent with the theme at numerous side events on sustainable agriculture and forest protection during the Paris climate talks. As the global development community has learned from past successes and failures, the rights, knowledge, and experience of indigenous and smallholder communities must be respected and harnessed in development projects supported by international funds.

Without doubt, recapturing atmospheric carbon and converting it to soil carbon at the global scale is worth fighting for. Whether the 4 Per 1000 initiative can successively fulfill its climate promise and promote sustainable rural development at the same time depends on a profound understanding of the obstacles as well as the use of smart designs to avoid running aground.


Wanqing Zhou is a research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute.

4 thoughts on “Carbon Trading: A Hidden Threat to Soil Carbon Sequestration?”

  1. Now there is a need to make estimations of carbon sequestration at high resolution to capture small farming using time series data, remote sensing and modelling to bring in the small farmers in to the fold of C-payments.

  2. My best advice for small farmers;
    Clean Biomass cooking is no small thing.

    The World Bank Study;
    Biochar Systems for Smallholders in Developing Countries:
    Leveraging Current Knowledge and Exploring Future Potential for Climate-Smart Agriculture
    http://fb.me/38njVu2qz

    has very exacting analysis of biomass usage & sources, energy & emissions.
    Also for Onion farmers in Senegal and Peanut farmers in Vietnam.

    A simple extrapolation made from the Kenya cook stove study, assuming 250M
    TLUDs, (Top-Lite Up Draft) Cook Stoves for the roughly 1 billion folks world wide now using open burning.
    A TLUD per Household of 4, producing 0.52 tons char/Household/yr, X 250M = 130 Mt Char/yr
    Showing sequestration of 130 Million tons of Biochar per year, could be achieved just from cooking.
    In terms of CO2e, these 250M Households reduce 825M Tons of CO2e annually.

    The cascading pulmonary health benefits for woman & children is the very thick icing on this nearly 1/2 GtC Soil Carbon Cake.

  3. Its a nice approaches, yes I am also agree that management carbon sequestration should be started from small farmers group.

    Md. Nazrul Islam
    Associate Prof, Dept of Agronomy, Sylhet Agricultural Unioversity, Bangladesh

  4. The document that links to the sentence “Meanwhile, technologies such as genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops claim to be “climate-smart” because herbicides, rather than tilling, are used to control weeds” makes no mention whatsoever of genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops.

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