EU must say no to “carbon farming” and yes to environmental stewardship

Preserving nature, restoring soils and safeguarding biodiversity are urgent and necessary activities. However, branding them as carbon removals is harmful. We need other solutions.

The European Commission’s proposed Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF) should have helped determine what constitutes valid carbon dioxide removals in the European Union. 

Regrettably, this is not the case. The draft carbon removals certification, monitoring and accounting system has numerous shortcomings, as outlined in Carbon Market Watch’s recent analysis. One fatal flaw is the CRCF’s strong focus on the wrong types of removals, including the so-called ‘carbon farming’ activities, which are gaining momentum in many of the policy debates surrounding it.

To be considered a true carbon removal, a process needs to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and store it permanently (meaning at the very least for two centuries). In contrast, carbon farming is an extremely broad and volatile concept covering very different types of nature-based activities (mainly storing carbon in vegetation and soils) with very different estimated durations of carbon storage lumped together. That said, all lead to carbon being stored temporarily in carbon sinks that are vulnerable to human and natural disturbances.

Natural choices

Carbon farming is something of a misnomer because its real benefits are to the broader environment. These activities have major benefits for society, the environment and landowners. Close-to-nature forestry practices have straightforward biodiversity benefits, but also increase the resilience of forests and help protect against pests. Soils with higher carbon content are better at retaining water (protecting against droughts and floods), have lower erosion rates, improve biodiversity, greatly reduce the need for pollution-intensive fertilisers and enhance soil fertility. These nature-based practices in general increase the resilience of our landscapes to the ever-worsening impacts of the climate breakdown itself, and can play a big adaptation role.

The environmental and social benefits are often referred to as ‘co-benefits’ by policymakers and stakeholders keen to underscore the climate perspective. However, that perspective needs flipping round: the ability to sequester carbon is the co-benefit, and the myriad of non-climate environmental, social and economic benefits are more than reason enough to incentivise these environmental stewardship practices.

Risky business

While carbon farming sounds like a no-regrets option with plenty of winners, there is a risk that no one wins at all if approached from a climate-centric perspective. Carbon credits from carbon farming are not the way forward: they are not a good tool for tackling the climate crisis for three different reasons. 

First, taking the example of soil carbon sequestration (the reversing of a historic loss of carbon from soils due to soil degradation by intensive agriculture), the cost of monitoring, verifying and reporting is extremely expensive and comes with huge uncertainties. This means that we cannot accurately measure how much is being sequestered, and will not know if and when carbon leaks back into the atmosphere – let alone how much. 

Anything that is certified as a removal risks being used to label products, companies or even the entire EU as net-zero or climate neutral. Using vulnerable carbon sinks in this way puts the EU’s climate targets at risk because the certified removals may actually only exist on paper or quickly seep back into the atmosphere, and so the target is not achieved in the real world, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Second, activities that lead to temporary removals are already widely used to offset permanent emissions – claiming a false equivalency between climate-heating pollution that stays in the atmosphere for centuries and carbon stored for mere years or decades. This distracts corporations, consumers and policymakers from actually addressing the climate impacts of the goods and services they respectively sell, buy or regulate. The climate crisis is acute – there is no time to waste on offsetting emissions.

Third, purchasing these nature-based credits are often cheaper than actually reducing emissions, which remains the most pressing and urgent priority. Crediting carbon farming thus risks slowing down mitigation actions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear on this matter: both removals and emissions reductions are needed, but as complements, not as substitutes. 

In addition, from a farmer’s and forest owner’s perspective certification as proposed by the European Commission risks being a double-edged sword. While they might receive some financial benefit after successfully (but not without burden and costs) proving that the carbon content in their biomass has increased, they will also need to take on the responsibility and potentially the financial liability for any carbon being released again. The risk of reversals for nature-based solutions –  and especially for soils – is extremely high, and can be caused not only by changes in practices (even by future generations of farmers and land managers), but also due to increasingly frequent natural disturbances, such as fires, droughts, flash floods, pests and invasive species. Those disturbances will be exacerbated by the climate crisis itself – further compounding the risks for farmers. Furthermore, a similar scheme in France has led to only around 60% of funds actually reaching farmers – the rest mainly ended up in the pockets of intermediaries.

Squaring the circle

For once, a circle can be squared: by taking a step back from carbon crediting approaches for non-permanent removals (not only carbon farming, but also carbon storage in products). Carbon credits, or results-based finance, need exact quantification and long-term monitoring of carbon stocks, and someone has to be liable for any reversals. 

Policymakers need to think beyond markets and instead focus on a viable alternative: activity-based finance. The EU, its member states and the private sector can financially support farmers and foresters to adopt and maintain good practices for the environment and the climate. 

This approach has many advantages. First, no quantification or estimation of carbon for highly reversible storage methods means no units that can be used wrongly, such as for greenwashing purposes or reaching EU targets. Second, no issuance of credits means no liability for farmers: if they change practices again, then they choose to no longer receive support. Finally, supporting best practices would not punish early movers (such as organic farmers or close-to-nature foresters), or farmers in geographic areas with less potential for carbon sequestration, and would also put the right benefits in the limelight. . 

Shaking the money tree

The key question remains funding. The logic of buying carbon credits to compensate for permanent emissions (read offsetting) doesn’t help us address the climate crisis, but it is clearly the only source of funding many policymakers and stakeholders can imagine. However, better alternatives exist. 

From the private sector, revenues from polluter pays instruments (such as the EU Emission Trading System) and funding given through contribution models can be used. But restoring and protecting nature is, ultimately, a public good, and public resources might become necessary for the EU needs to reach its environmental goals and bear its fair share of global efforts to tackle the biodiversity and climate breakdown. Public funding could come from existing schemes (such as greening the Common Agriculture Policy), from public procurement processes, or from new streams to help reach the targets of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law or the upcoming Soil Health Law.

It is clear that creating junk removal credits just to attract funding through voluntary carbon markets will not help the EU or its farmers and forests. Political will and foresight is needed now to prevent these mistakes from being made.

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This article first appeared in Social Europe on 22 March 2023.

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