Programs that pay farmers to sequester carbon in their soil are ramping up. But a growing chorus of skeptics cautions that the results may not live up to the hype.
(FERN Network) Trey Hill led a small group of fellow farmers to a field outside his office in Rock Hall on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was a cloudy February day, but the ground was alive with color — purple and red turnip tops mixing exuberantly with green rye, vetch and clover, and beneath it all, rich brown soil. Hill reached down, yanked a long, thick, white daikon radish from the earth and showed his visitors sumptuous coffee-colored clods clinging to hairy rootlets. Those clumps, he explained, hoard carbon — carbon that’s not heating the planet.
Hill didn’t adopt “carbon smart” practices like cover-cropping to fight climate change. He did it to build soil, retain water, and make money. But when the third-generation corn, wheat, and soybean farmer learned about Nori, a Seattle-based startup looking to sell credits for carbon stored in the soils of farms like his, he was all in. Hill didn’t necessarily expect a windfall, but he wanted to show fellow farmers they could make money while helping fight climate change. “If it works out and we make some money on it, that’s great,” Hill says. “If it doesn’t, well, somebody’s got to be first, and we’re willing to take that risk.”
Earlier this year, Nori paid Hill $115,000 for just over 8,000 tons of carbon stored in Hill’s soil. In the future, if each of the 10,000 acres he farms can sock away an additional ton of carbon per year — around the best he could hope for, he says — he could earn up to $150,000 annually.
As efforts to wean society off fossil fuels have stalled, “natural climate solutions” such as soil carbon sequestration have rapidly gained steam. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported that “negative emissions technologies” — techniques for removing carbon from the atmosphere, rather than simply reducing new emissions of carbon — are needed to stabilize global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the level scientists believe could be catastrophic.
The Academies’ report identified soil sequestration as a cost-effective and readily available climate solution, with the potential to remove 250 million metric tons or more of carbon dioxide per year in the United States alone. That’s about 5 percent of the U.S.’s annual CO2 emissions, which totaled 5.4 billion tons in 2018. This month, a team led by researchers at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) estimated that if implemented globally, soil conservation and soil-building activities could provide nearly 10 percent of the carbon reduction needed to avoid breaching the 2-degree barrier.
Millions of dollars are now pouring into soil-climate initiatives from corporations like Microsoft and General Mills, philanthropists like Leonardo DiCaprio, and governments large and small. A Boston-based agricultural technology firm, Indigo Ag, says that thousands of farmers working more than 18 million acres of farmland, nearly all in the U.S., have expressed interest in enrolling in its carbon-sequestration program. A consortium of food giants and nonprofits like TNC has raised more than $20 million to build a marketplace to sell soil carbon credits. Cities such as Boulder, Colorado, and San Francisco are including soil carbon storage in their climate action plans. California already pays some farmers for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and Maryland legislators are considering new funding for “carbon-smart” farmers like Hill.
At the national level, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat, have introduced bills that would pay farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices. Even Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has endorsed the concept.