Around the world there is growing understanding of, and interest in, the potential role of soil carbon sequestration in achieving Net Zero. This, alongside an appreciation of the numerous ecosystem benefits that increased soil carbon can deliver, has led to the establishment of a soil carbon market-place whereby farmers are being paid to adopt practices and land use changes that sequester carbon into their soil.
For UK farmers, this marketplace can be a potentially significant source of private sector investment. Agricultural land covers 17.7 million hectares in the UK and conservative estimates put the sequestration potential of this land at between 1-2 t CO2e ha-1 per year meaning the potential is there for the UK's farmland to absorb private investment in the region of £200M - £750M per year for carbon sequestration alone.
Private investment is also good news for the government and taxpayers because it will help fill the gap that exists between the amount of public money available, and the funding needed to tackle the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in the UK. In fact, the government is very keen to see public and private income sources for farmers align to help drive this transition.
To enable this investment, a number of soil carbon schemes are already up and running in the UK – which essentially connect farmers and investors around a single project. This market is still very new, however, and doesn’t currently operate according to a clearly defined regulatory framework.
This means that these schemes have varying approaches to many of the critical elements, such as: the MRV (measuring, reporting and verification) of changes in farm soil carbon stocks over time, different pricing models – the rate they pay and the overheads involved, as well as different approaches to some of the critical ‘principles’ at stake – permanence, additionality etc.
Put bluntly, there is a significant variance in the potential income at stake, the obligations imposed and the overall levels of scientific rigour and integrity.
This variance raises a great deal of confusion and uncertainty for both farmers and investors, which scheme should they choose and why? After all, there is a great deal at stake for all concerned over an extensive timeframe, sometimes decades long. Farmers do not want to put critical land management decisions in the hands of a third party – or over-promise soil carbon that might not materialise through no fault of their own. Investors do not want to pay for changes that would have happened anyway, or that get ploughed up, emitting soil carbon back into the atmosphere at a later date.
Now, you might think that this external validation of different schemes is already being done, and it is right to say that most of the codes, standards and schemes currently operating in the UK are aligned with relevant ISO standards, however the standards are both-non binding - you do not have to be accredited to an ISO standard by an independent body like UKAS to be able to operate in the UK - and flexible.
We are already seeing instances where different codes are aligned with the same, relevant ISO standards, but implement very different carbon models or soil sampling depths and methods – and therefore give wildly different assessments of the climate benefits – the carbon stored or the emissions reduced - of the same interventions.