UK farm field soil
Photo: Julian P Guffogg/
By Gary Hartley

Carbon markets not a prime influence on soil improvements by UK farmers

More needs to be done to encourage the UK’s most innovative farmers to participate in soil carbon markets, according to a University of Leeds study.

Dr Lisette Phelan carried out a survey of 100 farmers and six private sector and civil society organisations, finding that almost all participants were already carrying out measures to increase carbon stocks on their land, such as conservation tillage and the use of cover crops and leys. 94% were carrying out multiple practices.

However, the motivations of those investing the most time in soil improvement were improving soil health, addressing fertility issues and reducing production costs — not, notably, participation in carbon markets.

Only 12% of participants felt a responsibility to contribute to climate change mitigation, a result which suggests that farmers are not motivated by benefits which are not immediately tangible, Phelan. Meanwhile, many were not convinced of the reliability or availability of tools to measure soil improvements.

Despite carbon markets not being a prime motivator of action to date, 61% of the 72% who said they would be willing to adopt additional practices to improve soil carbon would only do so if they were paid. Phelan found that 80% of farmers would be willing to participate in carbon schemes, with the majority seeking payment for additional efforts and a smaller subset seeking compensation for the practices they had already adopted.

Perverse incentives?

Currently, a major issue that could stop innovative farmers joining soil carbon schemes is that way carbon codes are set up puts early adopters in a disadvantaged position relative to later entrants, Phelan wrote in the journal Environmental Development. Historic management of soils results in higher soil carbon baselines, and so less room for improvement — which is what is rewarded in such schemes.

This could create “perverse incentives”, she warned, as it would be advantageous to lower carbon stock baselines before joining a credit scheme, releasing carbon stored in soils.

“Farmers’ expectations of the market do not currently align with the reality and demands of the market,” Phelan wrote.

“The findings of this study underscore the importance of policymakers and practitioners recognising that innovative farmers currently believe that there is scope to benefit from the market. Paradoxically, however, the terms and conditions associated with carbon contracts – specifically, those related to additionality – currently undermine their ability to participate in the market.”

Mixed opinions, multiple barriers

Other takeaways from the study included that farmers would prefer to work with NGOs or project developments on carbon programmes, rather than with government, although 46% said that receiving payments from numerous sources, both public and private, would be preferable.

While a third of the surveyed farmers said they would be prepared to accept a contract for a soil carbon project of 5-10 years, 80% rejected a commitment beyond 10 years. A third believed there should be two rates of payment based on the effectiveness of soil management to date, with half asserting that payments should be based on measured increases in carbon stocks before and after signing a contract.

Further factors limiting farmers’ interest in carbon certification schemes to date may include conflicting information, the ease of use of carbon calculators, the implications of long contracts for multi-generational farms and the need for permanent maintenance of carbon stocks, Phelan found.

“There is much at stake, both in the UK and at a global level,” she added. “Without farmers’ adoption of soil health practices that capture and store carbon and committed participation in SCS schemes and engagement with the carbon market, the climate change mitigation potential, and associated ecosystem services, of sequestering carbon in agricultural soils will not be realised.”

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