6 April 2023

“Clear requirements are needed for carbon storage”


A report released in the UK highlights the importance of minimum requirements in carbon sequestration activities. The study aims to bring clarity to the marketplace and ensure the element’s long-term permanence in the soil

by Matteo Cavallito


Agricultural activities involving increased carbon sequestration face important development prospects through the market for emission credits. Without adequate criteria, however, the risk of paving the way for an unregulated system, difficult to monitor and subject to greenwashing practices, still seems very strong. This is why certain rules and indicators need to be established with the aim of generating environmental benefits by stimulating investment in agriculture.

These are the preliminary considerations behind the drafting of so-called “Minimum Requirements” for projects in the sector developed by a consortium of British researchers, NGOs and companies in recent months. The guidance is contained in a report by the Sustainable Soil Association, a U.K.-based organization.

Uncertainty dominates in carbon market

To date, the organization explains in an official statement, “the fledgling market for soil carbon – whereby farmers are paid for a combination of carbon storage and reduced GHG emissions through improved soil management – is up and running but largely unregulated, with businesses using a variety of techniques for measuring and estimating change over time, and different contractual mechanisms for managing the inherent risk and uncertainty.”

According to Helaina Black, a researcher at the James Hutton Institute, the credit market is still characterized by deep uncertainty. “A unit or credit of carbon achieved on one farm would not be equivalent – or even comparable with a unit from another,” she explains. “This opens the door to confusion, greenwash and even fraud.”

A survey published in January and carried out by the British Guardian newspaper, the German weekly Die Zeit, and the nonprofit organization SourceMaterial found that more than 90 percent of the offset projects based on reforestation and approved by the world’s leading certifier, Verra, turned out to be largely worthless.

The suggestions

Sustainable Soil Association’s report is based on an analysis of aspects that characterize soil carbon sequestration projects: from the set of knowledge needed to establish the change in soil stocks over time, to measurements and models to other aspects such as equity, transparency and risk. The goal? To ensure that the carbon stored in the soil stays there for as long as possible. Analyzing 12 methods of measurement, reporting and verification used around the world, the authors offer insights into the most diverse topics

These include: governance, quality of evidence demonstrating the likelihood of carbon sequestration or emissions reductions, compliance with the regulatory framework, and quantification of credits. As well as valuation and loss accounting, land ownership and record keeping.

According to Robert Parkhurst, president of Sierra View Solutions and co-author of the report, the minimum requirements “look to reflect these circumstances without being too prescriptive – telling farmers how to manage their most valuable asset – their soil.” The document, he adds, also seeks to “to balance the need to achieve high integrity without burdening projects with extraneous costs and overheads. This is a fledgling market and we hope our approach will enable it to thrive.”

Carbon farming can attract significant investment

Not unlike the European Union, the UK has long been betting on the potential of carbon farming, or agricultural practices that help capture the element from the atmosphere and store it in soils or biomass. In this regard, the development of the credit market is an important resource for encouraging the inflow of investment while ensuring decisive support for farmers.

In August last year, a study by the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, a London-based nonprofit organization, showed that farms located in the most marginal areas of the United Kingdom-which are less productive but also manage the soils characterized by the greatest storage potential-could achieve an amount of emission offset credits worth a total of £700 million per year.

Clear guidelines needed

To properly unlock investment, however, having clear guidelines in the sector remains crucial. “We know that there is considerable demand for nature-based carbon credits, and while there are codes in place for woodland and peatland, there is nothing equivalent for soil,” explained Mark Reed, co-director of the Thriving Natural Capital Challenge Centre at Scotland’s Rural College in Aberdeen. “We hope our work will send clear signals to the market that rigorous, high integrity farm soil projects are out there – and that this will in-turn unlock demand, focussing investment on those projects with the highest standards.”