How to launch carbon farming projects

Designing a carbon project can feel like stepping into quicksand, with so many existing methodologies, and a terminology that is not always consistent nor easy to understand. However, the conviction that a well defined project can contribute to face our current climate crises can be a great motivator, and general guiding principles can be identified. The following cookbook, elaborated to drive the Farms4Climate consortium forward, is intended for landscape-level transformation, which requires to look at whole value-chain processes as well as cultural and meteorological dynamics that create common grounds over large territories.

With this in mind, the first question that a project developer must answer is: "is there a local opportunity to effectively increase carbon stocks through the adoption of an agronomic practice?" Let assume that we are looking at an area of 20,000 hectares mostly dedicated to growing sugar beets. What is the average soil carbon content? Is there a practice, currently not implemented by farmers, capable of increasing carbon stocks in this agrosystem? Is there enough scientific evidence that it will work in the targeted pedoclimatic context? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there might be space to design a carbon project in the area.

The second element that must be considered is how to get farmers on board. In fact, a typical project would reward land managers for undertaking specific actions, but is the compensation sufficient to overcome farmers' resistance to change? The current broad range of prices for a ton of CO2eq attainable in voluntary markets is between 20-50 €, and most practices would result in a net carbon increase in the range of 0.5-2 tons of carbon per hectare per year. Therefore, for a 10 hectares farm, an estimated 100-1,000 € can be obtained each year by selling carbon, probably just enough to finance the implementation of the specific practice itself. This is why the living lab approach presented here (add link) is so important: farmers must be placed at the centre of the process, and multi actor synergies should be explored in order to facilitate the action, looking at existing representation structures (rural associations, cooperatives etc.), value-chain interests and consumer trends that add up to the simple reward mechanism behind the carbon project. Ultimately, if farmers can be convinced, then it makes sense to proceed.

A carbon farming project must generate multiple benefits; tangible and easily understood by farmers.

If the first two pillars to build impactful carbon actions exist, then it is only a matter of selecting a methodology for monitoring carbon stock over the years. Because the chosen procedure must be robust and widely recognised, project developers tend to look to companies such as Verra, which offer a list of quantification approaches that can be third-party certified. Alternatively, national or regional regulators sometimes offer specific methodologies, and these will likely grow in importance with the launch of the EU Framework for carbon removal certification, whose publication is expected for the end of 2022. However, the data required by the different procedures need to fulfil the following, common aspects of carbon monitoring. Firstly, normally called baseline delineation, the starting carbon stock in the target area must be assessed, most commonly by soil sampling and laboratory analysis. Secondly, the impact of the specific practice(s) must be estimated, and this is normally done by obtaining detailed knowledge on carbon fluxes through a few field trials, and then extrapolating this knowledge on the whole territory through modelling. The business as usual scenario and the best case one are then compared into a feasibility study that should provide a clear estimation of the amount of carbon removed if the action is consistently applied in the region. This study is generally submitted to the regulatory agency (e.g. Verra) for verification and approval. If approved, the project proponents now have something tangible they can use to negotiate an upfront payment with supporting organisations to finance the diffusion of the practice(s). Finally, carbon stocks are monitored over the years (generally at 5 years interval), and the actual removals certified and paid for. Because of the elevated costs of designing and certifying a carbon project, linked to the historically low value of carbon offsets, projects in the past mostly looked at afforestation/reforestation in large regions of low GDP countries. However, the price of a ton of CO2eq has increased substantially in the last couple of years, opening the door for agricultural carbon projects in the Mediterranean area, the focus of Farms4Climate.