The Mad Agriculture Journal
A Cautionary Note on Ecosystem Service Markets for Soil Carbon
November 30, 2020
On June 4th, 2020, Lindsey Graham and Debbie Stabenow introduced some climate solution legislation: the Growing Climate Solutions Act. This Act would reduce barriers and enable voluntary participation in soil carbon markets, rewarding farmers for climate-smart practices that sequester carbon dioxide into soil. The bill has the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Association, Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and over 40 farm groups, environmental organizations, and Fortune 500 companies. This is an unusual cadre of supporters in a time of hyper-polarization.
While I genuinely praise the bi-partisan agreement and mostly trust the intention of the politicians that want to help incentivize farmers to heal the land and put more carbon in the ground. I am, however, extremely skeptical of the economic paradigm underpinning this sort of bill. I have come to realize what appears to be an unconsciously pernicious worldview underpinning the carbon market ‘solution’, and shared by both the left and right wing - two wings of the same bird, as the saying goes.
For many folks trying to ‘save the world’ (which I question whether that should be my motivation; I am continuing to discover my whiteness in uncomfortable ways), it is tempting to latch on to the power of markets. Of late, these markets tend to rule how the earth is used. At Mad Ag, we often use the power of markets and consumption to create change. ‘Voting with your fork’ is a powerful force for change. And, I think of Wendell Berry’s words, ‘To a large extent, how we eat determines how the world is used.’ However, this doesn’t mean that markets are a pure mechanism to solve the ills of the world. In fact, markets have an enormous number of problems. Here, I lay out 8 concerns I have with monetizing carbon for markets.
1. Monetizing carbon is another way of commoditizing nature.
We should not be creating another way to commoditize nature by creating a mechanism that legitimizes ‘bad’ (fossil emissions and deforestation) by doing good somewhere else (soil restoration). These are features of carbon markets that will distance people from the land and farmers. Carbon markets inherently fail to fully source and work toward regeneration, a paradigm where everything is done with awareness and service to life. I fear that monetizing soil carbon is another solution to a problem, without addressing the deeper and more fundamental need to reimagine the virtues of our economy. In a time when rehumanizing the connection between people and earth is probably the most important thing to do, carbon markets are part of the financialization of everything, a hallmark of neoliberalism, where everything is reduced to the dollar, even the sacred. The sacred doesn’t belong on a balance sheet. Commoditizing carbon - the very currency and energy of ecosystems, of life itself - is a dangerous step toward that end. Fungibility is a convenient way to erode the genius of place. Carbon may be fungible, but ecosystems are not. Ecosystems are born of and evolve deeply in place. They are irreplaceable.
2. Carbon markets don’t deal with root cause.
It is often hard to see what the root cause is, and it is even harder to work at it. I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” I fear that the focus on solving climate change by sequestering more carbon into soil is treating the symptom of the program, not the root cause. Here’s a gross analogy, when you have an open wound, you don’t try to gather all the blood you’ve lost and put it back in your body. Rather, you stop the hemorrhaging and nurture the body to heal the wound. Creating the conditions for a body to heal itself is regeneration. We treat the climate problem like we treat ourselves medically in the West. Rather than use preventive medicine that considers the whole, we treat our sicknesses with a litany of bandaids and pills to cover up the insidious disease within. That disease is our collective desire and history of taking more than we give. Carbon markets are predicated on the ideas of making money in the destruction and in the restoration. Maybe this is possible. But when the goal is to make money, the hunger for power and control work in the shadow…at least in our current financial paradigm.
3. Carbon markets stand to overpromise and underdeliver.
We need to calibrate our expectations of soil, especially with annual-based agriculture. Carbon markets feed into a moment of cultural carbon exuberance and we must be prepared to be underwhelmed. The Terraton Initiative of Indigo is a case in point, which is the goal of sequestering 1000 Petagrams (Pg) of carbon dioxide into soil organic matter through agriculture. First, Jon Sanderman’s wonderful and rigorous research pins our agricultural carbon debt - the amount of carbon dioxide that humans have released to the atmosphere since the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago - to around 116 Pg C, or 426 Pg of carbon dioxide. Second, Deb Bossio and team recently published another robust study indicating that soil could play a major role in climate solutions, totaling 24 Pg carbon dioxide per year. Soil protection accounts for 40% of this value, where soil rebuilding (i.e. drawdown) plays 60% of this role at 14.3 Pg carbon dioxide per year. Taken together, if our carbon debt is 426 Pg of carbon dioxide per year and the potential carbon sequestration rate of regenerative agriculture is somewhere around 14.3 Pg carbon dioxide power year, then it’d take about 30 years to pay our debt. That’s pretty good. A good slice of the solution pie.
The 1000 Pg ambition however becomes even more ridiculous if one considers the type of agriculture hoped to achieve this: broad-acre monocultures of commodity crops that rely heavily on chemistry to enable no-till approaches and where cover crops are integrated as possible, and create a marginal carbon sink. If the conversation was focused on how to re-perennialize the prairie through a combination of rewilding, growing crops for people and not cows, and quadrupling down on perennial staple crops, my opinions here would shift 180 degrees. Sadly, these topics are still harbored in the realm of the truly radical. And so, the whole effort just smacks of raising money. Sadly, other organizations that we consider close allies are guilty of the same over-exuberance, though I believe for more altruistic reasons. As much as I love, admire and respect these folks, prognosticating soil carbon potentialities should be refined through some friendly peer-review before announcing salvation from the soap-box. Such foretelling is likely to put a black-eye on soil carbon, and go down as a foolhardy way of trying to appreciate the true regenerative power of soil.
It’s unclear if humanity will ever repay its carbon debt, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect to. We’d have to outsmart billions of years of evolution and improve on the equilibrium of carbon - water - nutrients cycles that give rise to the diversity, structure and function of ecosystems across this beautiful globe. Unlikely. We’d have to facilitate a massive ‘rewilding’ to even get close. If we shift from using land to growing crops to feed livestock to feeding humans, that’d be a start. If we find mechanisms that re-perennialize the world, that’d be even better. Political will is critical. And I’m not talking Democrats vs. Republicans. We need a new kind of civic discourse to shape what we value and why.
4. The carbon market concept is a utilitarian approach to valuing nature.
I’m not going to unpacked the long-standing debate of extrinsic versus intrinsic value of nature here. A butterfly is worth valuing because it’s a butterfly, and the same goes for a flower, and for carbon. I like the public lands approach. Society should collectively determine what is valuable and worth protecting, and then protect it from any sort of resource extraction.
Creating a carbon market using the same financial values and systems that have destroyed the world, will repeat the problem and do just that: fail to serve humanity and the Earth. Are we once again trusting the ‘invisible hand’ to ensure equitable distribution of wealth (financial and otherwise) to all living things? For environmentalists and scientists, the ecosystem service concept is alluring because it offers a way for markets, businesses and balance sheets to care about the earth. However, the values that underpin market solutions aren’t sufficiently examined or discussed. I’ve found that most scientists, who are best equipped to discuss the ins and outs of soil carbon, are ill-equipped to understand or evaluate the power, potential and problems of markets. I think this stems from the conundrum that most scientists conduct their research from a deeply valued position, yet spend their lives trying to divorce their values from their work in an effort to be objective. Most scientists I know hold dear to the belief that nature is worth caring for because it’s beautiful and worthy of care, yet cave to utilitarian schemes, mainly in order to be practical about how to create change.
We are in danger of losing what we really care about as we slide into a more fully utilitarian view of nature and our reliance on it. The term ‘ecosystem service’ says it all. Putting the circulatory system of an ecosystem (i.e. carbon) on a balance sheet can legitimize preservation as much as destruction, whichever pays.
Even under the current breakdown of financial terms, the equity is out of whack. Trying to capture ‘externalities’ on the balance sheet is trusting that markets find equity, when we are already way off: it takes about $55 to get 1 ton of soil carbon sequestered (the Act says $10 to open with, which is ridiculous), the market currently will pay $15/ton (if someone is lucky) and the social cost of carbon is likely $200+.
5. Time is a Circle. History repeats itself.
All of this soil carbon market excitement reminds me of the decade I spent working as a tropical rainforest ecologist around the world. It’s like trying to save the rainforest for its carbon. Such efforts have largely failed. Of course, the debate over this last statement rages, with a focus on the efficacy of REDD+ (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), but I side with the analysis and conclusions of Propublica, Mongabay, Stockholm Environment Institute and Institute from Agriculture and Trade Policy. (I’ll spare you from a summary here; Google it if you’re curious). Time has a funny way of behaving more like a circle, than a straight line of progress; history repeats itself, and sometimes quickly. It’s amazing how the current energy and interest in launching soil carbon market mirrors tropical rainforest carbon markets. The problems of using carbon markets to save rainforests have not been overcome.
The dangers of monetizing ecosystems for carbon are perhaps worse than doing nothing at all. When ecosystems are valued for their carbon, it conveniently homeogensizes or consolidates the non-cropping value to a single term. What about the sacred or cultural value of an ecosystem? Putting carbon on the balance sheet can legitimize an ecosystem destruction, as much as it can save it.
Why do we tend to measure things in order to value them?
I think of Alexander von Humboldt, the great scientist and measurer of much, and his proclamation, “What keeps me coming back to the rainforest is not something I can measure.” For me, it’s time for humanity to relearn how to fall in love with the places and people we find inspiring or depend on, and figure out other ways to fight for that. I love the soil, and its carbon, but I’m not ready to sell that to someone and something that does not share that affection.
Mad Agriculture has advocated and worked hard on ecosystem service marketplaces on the basis that accounting for externalities and helping farmers getting paid for creating ‘whole’ or ’true’ wealth is a good thing. However, I’ve come to believe that ecosystem service marketplaces are too highly derived and distant from the virtues that I can confidently say build and create a good economy. Let us not forget the true currency of ecosystems, carbon and sunlight, the true currency of a good human economy: love, reciprocity, care, stewardship and being a good neighbor. The necessary philosophical discourse to accompany the emergence of carbon markets is lacking.
6. Philosophy aside, MRV has a long way to go.
MRV: Monitoring, reporting, verification. Carbon markets depend on knowing how much carbon can be sequestered in soils, and quite frankly, we just don’t know. Nor, can we measure soil carbon sequestration in an accurate way that is cost-effective. There are certainly some wonderful efforts out there, particularly CSU COMET-Farm and Quick Carbon. Figuring out the relationship between cost and certainty is critical - we’re not there yet.
Uncertainty and cost declines with scale, but who owns that sort of land: fund managers, corporations and industrial farmers….look what that system has yielded. These sorts of farmers are already overly scaffolded by the Farm Bill, and should not receive additional support. Maybe there are ways to ‘bundle’ farmers in certain watersheds…seems unlikely and overly wrought.
The issues of permanence and additionality are gorillas in the room. I just spent a month on the road visiting 30+ of the best regenerative and organic farmers across the country in WI, MN, IA, MO, IN, IL, NE, CO, MD and PA. Every farm and farmers is different and faces a unique set of challenges. Carbon markets require contracts with farmers that bind them to at least 10 year agreements on soil stewardship. A 10 year land management contract in order to preserve soil carbon is just short of crazy. Farmers are going to do what’s necessary to grow food, not soil carbon. If they have a quack grass problem that ruins their ability to grow grain, then they should till wisely and likely till deep, releasing 25%+ of the carbon they’ve stored, to ensure the financial viability of the farm. Then a long perennial rotation is needed for healing. A multi-decadal perspective that acknowledges the dynamic equilibrium of carbon storage and that lives fully within the give-take of carbon storage and fertility is not appreciated in current carbon markets. They are not tuned to reality.
In the end, there are plenty of reasons to measure soil carbon sequestration, such as to better understand the role of regenerative agriculture in solving climate change. However, let’s not measure soil carbon to monetize it on a market.
7. There are other solutions.
Here’s a non-market idea. Remove (or wind down, or untether) the safety net of farm bill welfare that has supported the widespread planting of corn and beans to feed animals in concentrated operations. Farm payments have kept commodity farmers from hitting rock bottom - they hover around break-even every year. Most of the country is planted in a rotation of two crops, corn and beans. The carbon markets are tuned to serve these folks - farmers operating at scale using cover crops and no-till practices, but, in my opinion, growing the wrong thing. The present iteration of carbon markets could only serve to cushion this system from its demise. We have to ask the big questions. I’m not saying that we leave farmers stranded - the system is unjust, not the farmer, as their participation is largely out of duty, and unconscious. We need an off-ramp out of the industrial system, and carbon markets are a bandaid for a much deeper wound.
Another solution is to work on markets that pay farmers for creating healthy, nutrient-dense food, which comes from regenerative agriculture. Maybe there is a way to ‘inset’ carbon sequestration value by elevating the value of the product, rather than offsetting with carbon. Another solution is to create a public payment program that incentivizes and rewards farmers for regenerating the land. The USDA Conservation Reserve and Stewardship Programs are incredible examples of this. The CRP pays farmers to take land out of production for decades, enabling the restoration of prairie. This program is largely a price control mechanism on commodity supply and pricing, cloaked as conservation, but regardless, it creates some of the most beautiful land throughout the country. I was astounded this summer, when I was living out of an Airstream visiting Perennial Fund farmers, that most of the verdant, biodiverse and healthy landscapes were created through conservation payments and CRP. Way to go government! We need more of this, with a bigger appetite for permanent retirement from production and heavier investments in prairie restoration. Then, we’ll see birds rebounding in the skies and insects splattered on our windshields again.
8. The whiteness of carbon markets.
It’s very hard to see oneself when you’re in the historically and currently dominant, non-target group for racism, sexism, classism, or elitism. I’ve been learning this as our team has recently been working to uproot racism in our lives and working with Soul Fire Farm (check them out!). For me, carbon markets are an overly reductionist solution that fail to address the root cause of why we released soil carbon in the first place. The rebalancing of the carbon cycle needs to come as the outcome of a much deeper, rather than forced, relationship to the soil. I generally believe that ‘carrots’ over ‘sticks’ are a better way to create change, and carbon markets are trying to do that. But, we must be vigilant in our design of systems and inversive mechanisms. For me, carbon markets, as they are designed and who they work for, miss the point. In fact, they might pluck one nail out of the coffin of a system that needs to fully die, so the soil can truly thrive again.