Will Farmers Cash in on Carbon Trading? The Buzz


North American farmers may hold a key solution to protecting the climate. Traditionally, farmers have provided food for the planet. Now, through carbon farming, they have the opportunity to help save the planet.

Carbon farming refers to techniques for storing carbon dioxide in agricultural soil. Reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere by carbon farming can directly lead to reduced global warming.

Carbon farming could provide a way for Canada and the U.S. to meet future internationally set greenhouse emission reduction standards.

What Exactly is Carbon Trading?

Carbon trading occurs when companies that pollute the atmosphere pay farmers to plant crops or use other techniques that absorb carbon into the soil -- effectively hiding it from the atmosphere.

Bernie Sonntag heads the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. He describes how carbon trading can work. "For example, by adopting conservation methods that store more carbon in the soil, the farmer may be able to sell this carbon credit to a buyer who is unable to meet his greenhouse gas reduction commitment."

Where is Carbon Trading Happening?

Carbon trading is in its beginning stages. Markets are just beginning to emerge. Rules are not entirely established.

The first carbon trade in the U.S. took place in 1999 in Iowa. It linked a coalition of about 10 Canadian utility companies and a crop insurance company in the U.S. The insurance company, in turn, contracted with individual American farmers to sequester (or store) carbon in the soil.

Kendall Heise works for the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association. He adds that in this first example, the carbon storage took place by farmers practising zero tillage farming.

Zero tillage means that the soil is not stirred up, so to speak. The carbon dioxide stays stuck in the soil, as opposed to escaping into the atmosphere as it would if some other farming techniques were used.

"There are millions of acres of farmland in the U.S. Midwest now under contract to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sink it into the soil," says farmer Brian O'Neill.

Who Benefits From Carbon Trading?

"Everyone on the planet who lives within 100 feet of sea level," says O'Neill.

He says carbon trading directly and quickly leads to lower levels of pollution in the atmosphere.

Storing carbon in the soil is the only strategy that actually removes carbon from the atmosphere. Emission reduction policies aimed at companies that pollute can reduce carbon dioxide levels, but they can't actually remove toxic gases from the atmosphere.

"If soil organic matter levels can be slowly increased over the next 50 to 100 years [through carbon trading] back to their original levels, this would represent a large net gain of carbon in the soil and an equally large net loss from the atmosphere." That information comes from an article in the Kansas State University News.

It's cheaper for polluting companies to use carbon trading as opposed to other emission reduction strategies. People who work to set up exchanges between polluters and farmers would also benefit. As in any market, intermediaries who set up, manage and facilitate trading will benefit by charging users for their service.

Experts also say that storing carbon in soil improves soil fertility. That's because of increased organic material in the soil. That's a good thing for farmers. They may be able to use this improved soil for crop production, not just carbon storage.

Farm profits could increase through carbon trading, but likely not by much. This conclusion was made in a World Resources Institute report, A Climate and Environmental Strategy for U.S. Agriculture.

The report also points out that carbon stored "in agricultural soils can be easily released into the atmosphere again if a farmer were to revert back to traditional agricultural practices. Thus, the benefits of such an approach may not be permanent."

A Skeptic's View

Some people are opposed to carbon trading because they feel it is simply a temporary solution to the serious problem of global pollution. They argue that it lets polluters off the hook too easily.

"It allows a society to continue happily polluting at the same old rate they always did, instead of forcing them to look at reducing emissions, which often involves lifestyle change," adds O'Neill.

In the long term, only a finite amount of carbon can be stored. "Eventually, the soil reaches an equilibrium and cannot absorb any more carbon," says O'Neill.

Specific Work Opportunities

Carbon trading has already led to some new work opportunities. In all likelihood, there will be more opportunities in the future as a result of this trend.

O'Neill sees three main areas of work opportunities.

The first would be financial positions for people who set up the carbon trading contracts. The second would be jobs for agrologists or others who would be hired by crop insurance companies to verify that farmers are following the terms of the carbon storage contracts.

O'Neill believes that the largest potential opportunity would be "in the manufacturing of the specialized farm equipment that would allow for increased rates of carbon sequestration [storage]."

"There will be money made in this system," says John Kort. He is an agroforester.

"There are brokers who will be the go-betweens -- buying and selling carbon credits. Brokerages or others will also be responsible for verifying that the credits are real, since whatever international agreement is reached will include a system for verification. This will mean that someone will have to go out and measure or survey. Those selling credits will obviously make money," adds Kort.

Links

Carbon Trading: What It Is and How It Works
A basic introduction

World Resources Institute (WRI)
Research center that gives information and proposals for change to foster environmental sustainability