Australian farm vista
Photo: denisbin/Flickr
By Gary Hartley

Do higher standards mean better returns for soil carbon credit schemes?

An Australian study has linked the robustness of standards in assessment and verification under different carbon credit schemes to the amount of money farmers are likely to receive — but warned that there need to be further incentives to encourage mass participation in such programmes. 

The work, led by Kalpana Pudasaini at Central Queensland University, used a review of publications on schemes to date to compare the soil carbon methods of the country’s Emissions Reduction Fund to two international carbon credit schemes, the Verified Carbon Standard, which was created by the Climate Group, and the Gold Standard, a scheme ran by the Worldwide Fund for Nature and backed by a number of NGOs.

Testing what’s out there

Pudasaini looked at how the schemes compared around the additional impact generated, the permanence of carbon sequestration, baselines and measurement methodology, environmental sustainability and crediting period.  

She then used the available data to model how much a 200-hectare farm practising a soil carbon-focused grazing scheme in Australia’s beef cattle heartlands would stand to gain from participation in the schemes. The example programme included introducing legumes, planting perennials in multi-species pasture, rotational grazing using cell and conventional approaches, and installing appropriate fencing to ensure the grazing strategy was carried out successfully.

She found that credits generated through the national scheme generated bigger returns, due to higher market prices linked to more stringent standards.

Some of the differences she identified between programmes included that under the Emissions Reduction Fund, each individual action on a farm had to generate additional benefit, so there was no risk of crediting existing practices. With the international schemes, there was this risk.

Making it worth farmers’ while

Despite the implications of the results, joining a soil carbon credit scheme remains no easy decision for many farmers. There is currently low participation among Australian landowners in soil carbon schemes, reflecting a current global uncertainty.

“The results indicate that moving to international systems for establishing soil carbon offsets is not likely to generate higher returns to growers on current market prices,” Pudasaini wrote in the journal Carbon Management.

“Instead, increasing financial returns from carbon offsets to make them more attractive to landholders will require a combination of higher market prices and/or lower assessment and monitoring costs within the existing trading system.”

Other possible barriers include delays between initial soil carbon measurements and first payments, as well as contract lengths. However, environmental co-benefits such as improved biodiversity and soil fertility could generate interest in carrying out measures beyond rates of financial return alone, Pudasaini added, albeit frameworks to measure these co-benefits remain unclear.

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