Carbon Farming: Paying for Results, Not for Data (Soils Are Far Too Important for a Commodities Market!)

By Adam D. Sacks, Executive Director

At Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, removing carbon from the atmosphere by regenerating ecosystems and restoring biodiversity is our non-profit mission. Supporting farmers, herders and ranchers around the world to work in ways that both sequester carbon in soils and provide major benefits in productivity is a key means to that end. Unfortunately, the resources that carbon farmers need to accomplish this are currently in short supply. We need to develop a conceptual framework outside the current carbon-market mechanisms to advance the soil solution to global warming, and to provide funds, training and supplies that make worldwide carbon farming on billions of acres a reality.

To date, market mechanisms have been the primary basis for addressing the growing atmospheric carbon burden. Carbon credits for carbon stored or not released employ trading schemes to offset emissions that are in theory capped by national governments and international protocols, in particular Kyoto. Values are assigned to carbon emissions in the expectation that as emissions become more expensive, emitters will find it more economical to prevent emissions or to pay other enterprises that are somehow keeping carbon out of the atmosphere (“offsets”).

From the overall perspective of annual carbon emissions and growing greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon markets have not worked. While there may have been localized successes around the world in a variety of verified carbon offset projects (e.g.,, presumably making climate acceleration less bad, the market approach of commodifying carbon has not achieved significant or meaningful results in any practical sense.  There is little reason, other than market theology, to believe that any such outcome will occur in anything resembling a reasonable climate time frame.

Furthermore, many objections have been raised to carbon markets, for example with respect to prevention of deforestation (REDD Assessing results is fraught with methodological questions and arbitrary conventional assumptions that are subject to scientific and political uncertainty. In particular, current belief in direct measurement of soil carbon dictates whether an approach to climate is “legitimate” or not.

These process formalities are, generally speaking, obstacles to the actual and practical sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soils. While valid verification is necessary to justify investing money and resources in carbon farming, a different funding approach, one that is more suitable to the task at hand, is necessary.

Land managers have long known how to determine the health of the soil by visual observation, touch, color, and aroma. We also know that biodiversity in soils is necessary for soil health because, among many things, having thousands of different species of soil biota creates stable biological carbon molecules from atmospheric carbon dioxide captured by green plants through photosynthesis.

From this we can derive a qualitative methodology that bypasses the shifting grounds and uncertainties of quantitative measurement, measurement that is impractical – in terms of time, accuracy, cost and technological requirements – in the context of the necessary and immediate carbon farming in local communities worldwide.

Let me offer a brief example to illustrate. An extreme yet unfortunately common occurrence is desertification. A formerly healthy and diverse ecosystem becomes barren through exploitation, toxicity, misuse and carelessness. This has occurred in many different ecosystems, from grasslands to forests to lakes and oceans.

On a desertified grassland, for example, you will see little but bare soil, perhaps an occasional tree, a few shrubs, some struggling tufts of grass. Ninety-five percent or more of the ground will be naked earth. Such land supports minimal life above and below the surface; because it is dry and crusted, it cannot absorb water, which is sacrificed to evaporation or runoff; and has lost most of its biological carbon to the atmosphere.

Within one to three years of the beginning of an eco-regeneration project, depending on a variety of factors, changes will begin to become apparent. Animals, birds, insects, plants, fungi and microbial life will return. So will water. And so will carbon. It’s simply the way nature works, over millions of years. It’s entirely predictable.

Zim - elbow - 2006 - w date & oval

Zim - elbow - 2009 - w date & oval
Reversing desertification by applying holistic planned grazing in Zimbabwe
(photos courtesy of the Africa Center for Holistic Management).

Can we say exactly how much carbon? No. Even the best measurements over thousands of acres have significant margins of error. But the point here is that measurement, for all practical purposes of sequestering carbon in soils, is unnecessary. Every blade of grass is literally atmospheric carbon dioxide transformed into solid living matter, no longer polluting the atmosphere and causing global warming. And for each plant that you see reaching for the skies, there is more complex carbon stored in the ground. About this there is no scientific doubt.

Back to the carbon farmers. How can we determine how to pay them for their work, for their extraordinary contributions to reversing climate change? If the commodity model currently in play, which requires quantitative carbon measurement, does not apply, is there a model that does?

While the continued existence of life on earth should not be a business decision (after all, who would profit from a dead planet), we are swimming in a sea of misleading economic models. As a transition, I would suggest that an appropriate one for carbon farming would be the one we use for western medicine.

We pay our health care providers for a service, not for results. In fact, we often pay the most money for services that have the least likelihood of the results we want, such as therapies for life-threatening conditions like advanced cancer or severe trauma. The services we pay for have presumed results, often backed by well-developed science such as antibiotics for non-resistant bacterial infections, but we don’t pay for the results, which are never assured. We demonstrate faith in the providers and pay them for the service, in advance, with zero probability of refund.

I think that this model is appropriate to carbon farming and can provide us with an even higher probability of positive outcomes than mainstream medicine. The way to pay carbon farmers is for their services: to manage land in a way that we know from long experience results in healthier soils and carbon sequestration. The precise quantity of carbon stored is not at issue.

We would monitor species diversity, local water cycle improvement, the percentage of bare land and the observable qualities of soil. These are accurate data easily acquired with no technology beyond pencil and paper. We use such data to assist carbon farmers in improving their process, but we pay them for their work on the process. We do this because we know as a certainty, backed by nature’s millions of years of experience, that the process works in sequestering atmospheric carbon. Paying for the service rather than the outcome also provides security carbon farmers need during years of lowered productivity due to natural and anthropogenic variability of weather. Of course they are also paid for the fruits of their labor in the marketplace, whether crops or animal products.

Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere is urgent. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with measuring soil carbon, the issue is that it is a cumbersome and expensive process, and carbon markets are subject to complexities, loopholes and flaws that only slow our response to the global climate emergency.

We need to act now. Soils are the only feasible carbon sink in the time we have left. Millions of carbon farmers, working on billions of acres, are the key.


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