What You Should Know About Carbon Offsets

industrial factory creating air pollution in a bright green field on a sunny day

There are plenty of things we can do to help the climate, from eating locally grown regenerative organic food to reducing our fossil fuel consumption by insulating our homes, installing solar power, taking public transit or driving an electric car.

But, most of us find ourselves responsible for carbon emissions that can’t easily be avoided, whether it’s from a flight we have to take or the natural gas lines into our homes.

Increasingly, businesses are making it easy for consumers to offset the greenhouse gas associated with their purchases by offering carbon credits. Some businesses even set carbon-neutral goals and commit to completely offsetting unavoidable emissions.

Mom’s Organic Market, the store where I shop for groceries, has free electric car-charging stations at each of its locations and offers employees an incentive to buy electric cars. The opportunity to plug in my old limited-range Nissan Leaf is one of the reasons I love shopping at MOM’s.

Most of its customers drive gasoline-fueled cars. So, the store uses its customers’ zip codes to track miles driven for each shopping trip, then it offsets these emissions by buying carbon credits and adds the costs to its overhead. MOM’s makes offsetting customers’ greenhouse gas emissions one of its costs of doing business.

That’s great, but the offsets MOM’s buys aren’t. According to its website, it invests in projects such as:

• The McKinney Landfill Gas Methane Capture: trash decomposes in landfills, creating methane gas. Methane rises to the top of the landfill and is collected in pipes. This methane is burned to produce heat or generate electricity.

• Wisconsin Agricultural Methane Capture: animal manure on farms is collected. Manure digesters convert the energy stored in this organic matter into methane, which is used to produce energy (gas or electricity) for on and off farm use.

• U.S. Coal Mine Methane Capture: methane gas is captured from coal mines. The methane is then burned to produce heat or generate electricity.

I love MOM’s and don’t want to knock it for trying to do the right thing, but projects that slightly reduce the heavy emissions associated with coal mining, or waste rotting in landfills, or manure piling up in factory farms, don’t make the best offsets. Creating additional revenue streams for these environmentally destructive practices will only prevent them from being replaced by composting, grass-based dairy and clean power.

Pollution reductions shouldn’t be considered offsets.

Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions should mean sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s the only way to lower CO2, currently at 416 parts per million, back down below the dangerous tipping point of 350 ppm.

There’s only one way to do this: regenerative organic agriculture.

Technically, on the whole, U.S. cropland is already a carbon sink, sequestering 10.3 MMT CO2 Eq. in 2017. U.S. grasslands, where cattle graze, are too, but just barely, sequestering 0.1 MMT CO2 Eq.

Does that mean U.S. farmers and ranchers should be able to sell 10.4 million tons of carbon credits to polluters? No and here’s why:

Just because cropland is sequestering carbon, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a source of greenhouse gas pollution.

U.S. cropland has been losing carbon. In 1990, U.S. cropland sequestered 40.9 MMT CO2 Eq. and it’s been steadily declining since then. So the 10.3 MMT CO2 Eq. sequestered in 2017 could also be seens as the emission of 30.6 MMT CO2 Eq.

Worse than that, agriculture is a much bigger greenhouse gas polluter than it is a greenhouse gas sink. Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas (266.4 MMT CO2 Eq.―the Environmental Protection Agency euphemistically calls synthetic fertilizer use Agricultural Soil Management) and the waste and emissions from the concentration of animals in factory farm feedlots (255.8 MMT CO2 Eq.―Enteric Fermentation and Manure Management in EPA’s parlance).

Altogether, farming and ranching is emitting 542.1 MMT CO2 Eq. while sequestering 10.4 MMT CO2 Eq.

So, if agriculture is to become carbon neutral―let alone contribute to offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions of other sectors―synthetic fertilizers and factory farms must be phased out, while regenerative organic practices that sequester carbon are ramped up.

There’s certainly a lot of potential, especially on grasslands where fertilizer isn’t used and cattle can be kept for the entirety of their lives instead of being sent to factory farm feedlots.

But, this is going to mean reversing a very strong trend in U.S. agriculture of greenhouse gas pollution and plummeting soil carbon sequestration.

Back to offsets, we don’t see a problem with polluters paying farmers and ranchers to sequester carbon through carbon credits, as long as:

1. the money is from polluters not taxpayers (see our action alert on that here),

2. there’s no use of synthetic fertilizers, and

3. the crops and livestock don’t end up in factory farm feedlots.

A great example of agricultural carbon credits done right is Hudson Carbon.

Hudson Carbon measures, verifies and registers offsets based on the carbon sequestration that results from regenerative organic agriculture practices, including agroforestry, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, cover cropping, dense crop rotations, planting perennials, eliminating chemical fertilizers, and minimizing tillage.

As a non-profit, Hudson Carbon has a unique way of pricing carbon credits:

We believe that carbon is systematically underpriced, which means that there are insufficient consequences for emitting and limited incentives to embrace carbon removal. The social cost of carbon is a challenging concept, how does one put a price on lives lost and people displaced from dirty air, coastal erosion, water disruption, and extreme heat? Scholars have tried to come up with answers, which have ranged from $30 to $400 per ton of carbon. Rather than placing a price on people’s lives and our public goods, we have taken a different approach. We have set out to determine the price that will make it possible for farmers to align their operations to maximize carbon capture. Committing to regenerative practices means upfront costs including new equipment, temporary yield declines, new seeds, more labor, and innovative pest management. We have worked with our agricultural partners to price out those needs and come up with a carbon price that adequately overcomes those barriers and allows farmers to sustain those practices. We think this will send better signals in all carbon markets and compensate at levels that will actually create change. Regenerative practices can draw down up to a half of global emissions, while making food healthier, land more fertile, and rural communities more prosperous. We feel this should be our most prioritized climate solution and believe it deserves a premium price.

Farmers receive 80% of the carbon revenue from our marketplace. The remaining costs support the registration and verification process, and the soil carbon research we lead to continue to advance agricultural carbon initiatives. As a non-profit, all revenue earned above our costs gets funneled back into our mission of accelerating adoption to regenerative agriculture.

When a company or consumer buys a carbon offset from Hudson Carbon they are buying one ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere and stored in the ground in a particular year. The credit is retired. No one else can purchase the same carbon, and it cannot be resold. Each credited ton of carbon remains stored for at least 10 years, but likely much longer. Buyers and sellers are protected from unintentional carbon releases, in the case of a wildfire for example, by a reserve pool of credits to cover these events or any potential inaccuracies discovered after a credit has been issued. As Hudson Carbon’s FAQs state, “Natural systems are imperfect, but we are careful to be conservative to avoid overstating the benefits of a project.”

Hudson Carbon offers credits based on carbon removal, not avoided emissions. Only projects that actually draw down carbon are credited:

There is a big difference between carbon removal and avoided emissions. While it is important to decarbonize our smokestacks and tailpipes, we cannot reach our climate goals by simply polluting less. We also need to draw down carbon from the atmosphere.

Hudson Carbon uses detailed climate models that not only evaluate the level of carbon stored in soil, but the changes relative to a baseline of standard practices. For example, there may be years, because of precipitation and temperature patterns, where most farms would sequester some carbon.

Hudson Carbon only provides credits to farms that beat that standard and go above and beyond. Credits under this standard have the highest integrity for demonstrating true climate benefits. These benefits are demonstrated through precise measurements of climate impact, including soil cores, to continue to advance soil carbon science and reliably credit exceptional climate action.

Want to learn more? We do, too! Regeneration International is currently exploring how Hudson Carbon credits may be a way for farmers in Mexico to get the financial support they need to transition to regenerative organic agriculture using an innovative silvopasture model.

We’ll have more news on that soon. In the meantime, learn more at these links:

WEBSITE: The Billion Agave Project

VIDEO: Agave and Mesquite Agroforestry

VIDEO: Game-Changing Agroforestry & Holistic Livestock Management System

DONATE: $10 will fund the planting of an agave and a mesquite tree seedling to help fight climate change in a life-sustaining way.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA)

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