The buzz and the true potential of carbon farming

The European Environmental Bureau published its new report, Carbon farming for climate, nature and farmers on 21 October. META talks to the author of the report, Célia Nyssens, Policy Officer for Agriculture, about the EEB vision for carbon farming, the challenges and what it would take for this approach to become the win-win-win solution for climate, nature and farmers. This report follows the publication of the EEB pathway, a study exploring the possibility of reaching net-zero emissions for agriculture through agroecology and a healthier and a more sustainable diet.

Why was it important for the EEB to publish a study on carbon farming and why now?

Carbon farming has become quite the buzzword in the European farming policy circles. In the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission presented it as a ‘new green business model’ which will encourage farmers to reduce their emissions and increase carbon sinks. This sounds good in principle, but now the crucial question is how should carbon farming really be done? Agricultural policymakers and businesses have a track record of promoting green-sounding, simplistic solutions that turn out to be a lot of greenwash. This was the case with bioenergy. With carbon farming, there’s a bit of a risk that this scenario would repeat itself. That would be a real shame, because we believe that carbon farming does have a true transformative potential, if it’s done right. This is the point we’re trying to make with this report.

What is carbon farming then?

Carbon farming seems to mean different things to everyone. Even in the European Commission, the Directorates working on climate and on agriculture seem to understand it differently. For DG Agri it’s mostly about soil carbon sequestration, whereas DG Clima did a study on carbon farming which also looked at reducing emissions in livestock farming. Among the NGOs and businesses, carbon farming often seems to be understood as a shortcut for voluntary carbon credits.  In our report, we define carbon farming clearly as referring to the land management practices which can reduce emissions from soils and increase carbon sequestration in soils and vegetation. This definition makes the most sense to us: it’s about farming in a way that keeps and boosts carbon in the soil.

But this says nothing about how carbon farming should be promoted, which is a very important and separate discussion. Our definition places the focus on a critically important actor in our fight against climate change and biodiversity loss: soil. I say actor, and not factor, because soils are living ecosystems. It’s about time we stop treating soils as a dead growing medium which can be filled with pesticides and fertilisers to pump out the highest crop yields possible. There is large and growing scientific evidence that soil life plays a crucial role in cycling nutrients (including carbon), supporting plant growth and health, and in boosting soils’ ability to absorb and retain water. But soil life needs organic matter (made up of carbon and other nutrients) to thrive. Intensive farming has led to a huge decline in the organic matter content of soils.

What should policy-makers do to promote carbon farming for the climate, nature and farmers, as the EEB report argues?

In the report, we make the following 5 key recommendations for EU (and to some extent national) policymakers:

  • Ensure carbon farming delivers nature-based solutions, benefitting climate, biodiversity and

rural communities.

  • Set legally-binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, restore key carbon sinks (such as peatlands and semi-natural grasslands) and achieve healthy soils.
  • Establish mandatory baselines and safeguards to prevent further degradation of soils and put in place robust data collection and monitoring systems.
  • Develop a coherent policy mix of effective incentives, mobilising private and public funding strategically, including the new Common Agricultural Policy.
  • Invest in the enabling factors for behavioural change: knowledge, culture and infrastructure.

These are all equally important, but I’d like to say a bit more about the first point referring to nature-based solutions. This approach must underpin all efforts to promote carbon farming, which needs to be about holistic solutions that address our multiple environmental and socio-economic challenges jointly. If we only look at carbon, we could end up promoting false solutions such as afforestation with monoculture plantations. This could have disastrous impacts on biodiversity, climate adaptation, and rural communities.

You write in the report that many businesses and policymakers are turning to voluntary carbon markets to finance carbon farming. This approach could undermine genuine climate action, burden the farmers, create unequal incentives and distort competition. Could you explain briefly what voluntary carbon market is and why is it detrimental to all these factors?

One could write a book about this, but in few words, the voluntary carbon market is a market where “carbon credits” are traded between public and/or private actors on a voluntary basis. They are not required to do so by law, people sell and buy carbon credits on the voluntary market because they wish to do so. There is growing interest from companies, who have pledged to become “climate neutral”, to buy carbon credits on the voluntary market to compensate for the emissions which they cannot, or decide not to, eliminate.

The big issue is that so far, such markets have not been regulated at all, and there are many examples of projects that produce “carbon credits” (or offsets) without delivering real climate benefits.

In addition, there is a major issue linked to the fact that carbon stored in soils or trees can always be lost back to the atmosphere if there is a fire or if the “carbon farming” practice is abandoned. These factors raise the important issue of liability. Who would be responsible for these? For how long? Also in some projects, carbon credits are sold “ex ante” (in advance) based on a modelled sequestration potential, but if that potential is not met, the question of liability arises again.

Finally, there’s also the question of fairness linked to the fact that not all farms have the same potential to sequester carbon. Those who have the highest potential (often due to a history of unsustainable agriculture) will benefit the most from a system that rewards farmers per ton of carbon sequestered. Also because carbon credit projects require “additionality”, farmers who have been doing “carbon farming” for years will not be eligible for payments for the carbon they are sequestering through the voluntary market. On the other hand, carbon sequestration potential also depends on soil types and climate conditions, so some farmers will be disadvantaged based on those factors they have no control over.

What financial schemes and other incentives could support farmers and businesses to make the transition to carbon farming?

For the reasons I just mentioned, it’s really important to look primarily at non-market-based incentive systems. In our report, we highlight how more “collaborative” funding models, through regional or supply chain partnerships could work really well to support farmers adopt carbon farming practices. Public funding, especially through the EU Farming Policy (CAP), is also crucial, especially to meet the upfront costs of transition (eg when new machinery is needed) and to maintain the most virtuous and perhaps less profitable carbon farming systems (e.g. high nature value farming, organic farming, wet farming on peatlands – known as paludiculture, etc). 

You seem to suggest that carbon farming could be part of an inevitable systemic change, if we are to slash greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 and limit global warming to 1,5 degrees Celsius. In your view, what are the crucial factors that could facilitate such a fundamental change?

The agriculture sector has a key role to play in helping tackle climate change and halting biodiversity loss. But this can only happen if we rethink deeply how we produce and consume food – as we showed with the EEB pathway we published earlier this year. I believe carbon farming has the potential to be the catalyst for this transformation, because it requires a different approach to farming. It’s no longer just about crops, but also about the life under our feet. To increase carbon in soils sustainably, agriculture will have to evolve from the primarily linear, chemistry-driven input-output model that currently dominates, to a new, circular model that involves at least as much biology and ecology as chemistry. I think that once farmers start on the carbon sequestration journey, their new understanding and appreciation of soils, as complex ecosystems, could be truly transformational.