Value beyond carbon: what are carbon farming co-benefits?
Friday, January 21, 2022
Agricultural lands are dynamic, and farmers persistently adapt ways to environmental changes and economic pressures.
In the face of climate change, farmers are again called upon to strengthen plans to remove greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere through carbon farming. There are other carbon removal techniques that rely on large-scale technological infrastructure. Carbon farming is only one of the ways excess carbon can be removed from the atmosphere.
What sets carbon farming apart from other infrastructure-based mitigation strategies is its capacity to develop landscapes, beyond carbon storage, with added benefits to people and the environment.
Indeed, carbon farming has a great potential to cultivate wide-scale benefits beyond agriculture. But what about the farmers?
A big reason why carbon farming is attractive to land managers is due to the immediate and long-term impacts it can provide for lands. Farming strategies that foster landscape-wide carbon storage also provide in-farm co-benefits for income, farm productivity, and soil health, among others.
Let’s explore some carbon farming co-benefits in this article.
The many positive impacts of carbon farming
Carbon farming emphasises on adapting sustainable methods that predominantly enhance the absorption and retention of carbon from the atmosphere into productive lands. Thereby unlocking the natural capacity of lands to help drawdown carbon in large-scales.
As any farmer would know, working the land isn’t an isolated process. Plants, soil, water, air, sunlight, and nutrients affect each other in a typical crop lifecycle. In a similar vein, while carbon farming focuses on emission reduction and removal, it also creates a whole slew of other beneficial effects with direct and indirect outcomes for farmers and farm productivity.
Carbon farming provides a unique opportunity to manage lands more strategically with added benefits in various socio-economic and environmental aspects. In general, potential carbon farming co-benefits can be categorised into three. It is important to keep in mind that each farmland is unique and its co-benefits vary from operation to operation.
Soil: soil health, soil conservation, improved structure and stability, nutrient availability, water and moisture retention
Water: helps improve water quality by preventing nutrient runoff, irrigation efficiency
Biodiversity: enhanced habitat for species richness, supports complex ecosystem structures, helps manage plant disease and pests
Waste management: less reliance on harmful chemical inputs, pollution management
Skills and knowledge development
Community participation in nature-building
Cooperation between various sectors in society
Expands income opportunities in the farm
Cost-savings from reduced inputs and fuel-use efficiency
To manage farm productivity for the long-term
Maximising carbon farming co-benefits
The SDGs emphasise a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all by the United Nations.
Carbon farming has a great potential to generate diverse positive ecological impacts as it innately promotes environmental stewardship, especially on soil health. This is why for some, sequestering and storing carbon by managing arable lands through carbon farming is considered a nature-based solution (NBS). NBS are methodologies that incorporate nature or natural processes for creating sustainable solutions to challenges such as climate change.
Farming practices such as cover cropping, crop rotations, reduced tillage, and reduced use of chemicals in the farm are also tenets of the regenerative and sustainable farming movements. But carbon farming also provides other advantages that may not be present in other land management systems for agriculture.
Accuracy and incentives are keys to successful carbon farming that maximise co-benefits. Opting-in to a carbon farming scheme aligns sustainability goals and outcomes better, where the process usually begins with accurate measurements, reporting, and verification (MRV). MRV is standard in carbon farming to generate credits which can then be sold to people and businesses wanting to offset their residual carbon emissions.
When making plans to operationalise carbon farming strategies, it is important to include potential co-benefits from early-stage reports to ensure progress can be tracked throughout the project lifecycle. Note that different verification schemes classify carbon farming co-benefits differently.
Verra (a leading organization for certifying carbon emissions reductions) uses Sustainable Development Verified Impact Standard (SD VISta) to assess and report sustainable development benefits of project-based activities. SD VISta evaluates project co-benefits based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Co-benefits add value to carbon farming projects
On top of using the natural capacity of soils and plants to store carbon, carbon farming practices generate multiple co-benefits that satisfy other areas of improvement surrounding agriculture. In fact, a study shows that pursuing environmental, social, and economic co-benefits drive success in carbon farming, more so than projects that solely focus on carbon sequestration.
Just as carbon farming addresses issues in climate change such as emission reduction and carbon removal, as well as promoting farm resilience against extreme climate change effects, it also creates added economic incentives for farmers.
Carbon farming opens up opportunities to engage in carbon programs that can reward farmers for increasing carbon stocks in the land. Carbon credits are generated as proof that a farm that switched to carbon farming practices has successfully sequestered and stored carbon in the field. Farmers earn from credits when sold to businesses looking to offset unavoidable emissions.
While economic benefits do exist for farmers, it’s important to meet with an advisor to ensure carbon farming opportunities really exist for your individual operation. Each field is different and it’s important to understand whether your land has sequestration potential, to begin with. And if so, what farm practices are worth switching to and how much time and commitment is needed to gain economic benefits from carbon farming credits.
Finding the right carbon farming opportunity
The right carbon farming scheme for your farm can produce added benefits for the environment, people, and profit. Usually creating income incentives for farmers and sustainable benefits to the productivity of the field.
It is important to adapt the right farm management changes that are favourable for particular farm conditions unique to each field. If you’re thinking of shifting to more sustainable farm practices, seeking the advice of experienced agronomists can help set your carbon farming journey right from the beginning.
Keesstra, S., Nunes, J., Novara, A., Finger, D., Avelar, D., Kalantari, Z., Cerdà, A. (2018). The superior effect of nature based solutions in land management for enhancing ecosystem services. Science of The Total Environment, 610-611(), 997–1009. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.08.077. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969717320752
Lin, B., Macfadyen, S. Renwick, A., Cunningham, S., Schellhorn, N. (2013). Maximizing the Environmental Benefits of Carbon Farming through Ecosystem Service Delivery. BioScience 63(10), 793-803. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.10.6
COWI, Ecologic Institute and IEEP (2021).Technical Guidance Handbook – setting up and implementing result-based carbon farming mechanisms in the EU Report to the European Commission, DG Climate Action, under Contract No. CLIMA/C.3/ETU/2018/007. COWI, Kongens Lyngby. https://www.rbpnetwork.eu/media/technical-guidance-handbook-on-carbon-farming.pdf
Land Restoration Fund (LRF) – Co-benefits Standard: For Land Restoration Fund projects (2021). Queensland Government, version 1.3, 1 July 2021. https://www.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/116548/lrf-co-benefits-standard.pdf
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