Got to reward farmers for storing carbon

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LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Building carbon levels in the soil delivers a variety of important benefits, from improved soil quality to better water-holding capacity, higher fertility and resistance to erosion.

Still, the biggest enticement to sequestering carbon will be creating markets through which farmers can sell the service they provide.

“I think what we’re really looking for as a farm organization, or society in general, is some way to reward farmers and ranchers for doing things like storing carbon and some other environmental practices,” said North Dakota farmer Dale Enerson, who serves as director of the Carbon Credit Program for the National Farmers Union in Jamestown, N.D.

National Farmers Union

The National Farmers Union has served as an aggregator of carbon credits, collecting pledges from 3,700 growers in the U.S. to sequester carbon on 4.7 million acres of cropland and rangeland and selling the bundle of carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Participating growers received an average of $1.20 per ton of sequestered carbon. Official Chicago Climate Exchange estimates for carbon sequestration range from 0.2 to 0.6 metric tons per acre on no-tilled cropland, 1 metric ton per acre on long-term grassland (such as CRP ground) and 0.12 to 0.52 metric tons on rangeland with enhanced management practices.

Canada

In a pioneering carbon offset trading program in Alberta, Canada, 47 percent of the offsets are from agricultural land. On the Chicago Climate Exchange, 25.52 percent of the offsets have been purchased from farmers.

In Canada, provincial carbon offset trading in Alberta and Saskatchewan are paving the way for nationwide caps on industrial greenhouse gas emissions that will kick in Jan. 1, 2010.

Capping emissions will boost the market for tradable carbon offset credits, and agriculture wants to be part of the package.

Preparing soil carbon offset credits for a full-scale, regulation-driven market will require policymakers to sort out an array of issues, ranging from how long the contracts should be, who owns the carbon (the operator or the landowner), how practices are verified, and how to handle situations in which an operator releases carbon by disturbing the ground in violation of his contract.

“These cross-cutting issues can be worked out by working together,” noted Don McCabe, an Ontario farmer who serves as vice president of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, “because at the end of the day, it’s the same science. We’re starting to see the ball running down the hill. We’ve got to keep it rolling.”

Though voluntary markets have kept the value of a ton of sequestered carbon low — prices on the Chicago Climate Exchange have ranged from 90 cents to $7.50 per metric ton, and Alberta prices have ranged from $6 to $12.

McCabe believes a free market in which buyers are motivated by regulatory emissions caps could reach $65 per metric ton by 2020. That would be music to the ears of farmers — and the participants in the October meeting.

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