Agricultural Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

Agricultural Carbon Offsets Explained: All You Need to Know

By
Grace Smoot

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Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural production currently account for roughly 11% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Partnered with carbon offsets, sustainable agricultural practices could reduce these emissions and mitigate climate change. So, we had to ask: What are agricultural carbon offsets really, and could they help us mitigate climate change?

Agricultural carbon offsets seek to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the agriculture industry. Agricultural offsets protect soil health and reduce methane (CH4) emissions, yet they are difficult to monitor and verify and face carbon storage capacity limitations.

Keep reading to find out all about what agricultural carbon offsets are, how they work, how effective and efficient they are, what their pros and cons are, and what the best ones are. At the end of the article, we’ll also share with you how agricultural carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change and what better alternatives to them are. 

The Big Picture of Agricultural Carbon Offsets

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere. They are measured in tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

“Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by reforestation” c

Merriam Webster Dictionary 

Agriculture is an industry that ranges from small local farmers to commercial grain and livestock operations. It involves soil, crops, and livestock all working together.

“Agriculture: the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products”

Merriam Webster Dictionary 

Fueled by the need to feed a population that could reach 10 billion by 2050, the global agriculture market is expected to grow from $13 billion to $19 billion by 2027. And because the agriculture industry generates roughly 11% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, managing those emissions will be crucial to fighting climate change. 

What are agricultural carbon offsetsAgricultural carbon offsets involve emissions associated with the agriculture industry, which ranges from small local farmers to commercial grain and livestock operations.
How do agricultural carbon offsets workAgricultural offset projects reduce CO2 emissions by supporting projects that mitigate GHG emissions from agriculture including the addition of fertilizers to soils, manure management, field burning of crop residues, and fuel usage on farms.
How effective and efficient are agricultural carbon offsetsEffectiveness: Agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of time, protect soil health, and reduce methane (CH4) emissions. However, they can be difficult to monitor and verify, and they do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Efficiency: Agricultural carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective; however, they are also not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions and face storage capacity limitations. 
What are the 5 pros of agricultural carbon offsets1. Agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of time
2. Agricultural carbon offsets protect soil health
3. Agricultural carbon offsets can reduce methane (CH4) emissions 
4. Agricultural carbon offsets are cost-effective
5. Agricultural carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually
What are the 4 cons of agricultural carbon offsets1. Agricultural carbon offsets are difficult to monitor and verify
2. Agricultural carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions
3. Agricultural carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitations
4. Agricultural carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions
What are the best agricultural carbon offsetsThe best agricultural carbon offsets are offered by Husk, Vi Agroforestry, and Native Energy, which involve biochar, agroforestry, avoided grassland conversion, and methane capture projects across the globe. Carbofex and Novocarbo also repurpose waste and CO2 into biochar and sustainable products.
How can agricultural carbon offsets help mitigate climate changeAgricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, avoided grassland conversion, and farm methane can specifically help mitigate climate change because they either reduce CO2 emissions or sequester them for long periods of time. 

What Are Agricultural Carbon Offsets

Agricultural carbon offsets involve emissions associated with the agriculture industry, which ranges from small local farmers to commercial grain and livestock operations.

Agricultural carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset designed to mitigate GHG emissions from agriculture including, but not limited to, the addition of fertilizers to soils, manure management, field burning of crop residues, and fuel usage on farms.

“Agricultural carbon credits: increase the storage of carbon from the air into the soil through improved forest, grassland and cropland practices” 

Some examples of agricultural practices that can generate carbon offset credits include:

  • Agroforestry
  • Soil carbon maintenance
  • Methane capture from livestock
  • Peatland management
  • Livestock and manure management
  • Nutrient management on cropland and grasslands

How Do Agricultural Carbon Offsets Work

Agricultural offset projects reduce CO2 emissions by supporting various projects that mitigate GHG emissions from agriculture.

Some of the most common agricultural carbon offset projects typically involve:

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the big picture of agricultural carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “What Are Agricultural Carbon Offsets and How Do They Work? The Big Picture”

How Effective and Efficient Are Agricultural Carbon Offsets

In terms of effectiveness, agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of time, protect soil health, and reduce methane (CH4) emissions. However, they can be difficult to monitor and verify, and they do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

In terms of efficiency, agricultural carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective; however, they are also not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions and face storage capacity limitations. 

Agricultural carbon offsets are effective at mitigating climate change because:

However, agricultural carbon offsets can also lack effectiveness because agricultural emissions themselves are difficult to measure and manage, and because purchasing a carbon offset does not directly reduce your carbon footprint. It only makes others reduce their carbon footprint to compensate for your carbon footprint. 

Agricultural carbon offsets are efficient at reducing CO2 emissions because biochar, agroforestry, CH4 capture, and avoided grassland conversion are relatively cost-effective, averaging less than $40 per ton of CO2 offset. 

However, agricultural carbon offsets can also lack efficiency because:

  • They are not scaled enough to keep pace with the global GHG emissions of a growing population
  • Carbon storage capacity limitations of biochar and agroforestry prevent agricultural offset efforts from compensating for all of our carbon emissions
Related: Are you interested in learning more about how effective and efficient agricultural carbon offsets are? Check out the full article here: “How Effective and Efficient Are Agricultural Carbon Offsets? Here Are the Facts”

What Are The 5 Pros and 4 Cons of Agricultural Carbon Offsets

Agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of time, protect soil health, reduce methane (CH4) emissions, are cost-effective, and allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

However, agricultural carbon offsets can also be difficult to monitor and verify, are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions, face carbon storage capacity limitations, and do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the pros and cons of agricultural carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Agricultural Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained”

What Are the 5 Pros of Agricultural Carbon Offsets

Agricultural carbon offsets have various pros that make them effective at reducing carbon emissions.

5 Pros of Agricultural Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of timeExperts estimate that biochar tilled into soils and not disturbed can store CO2 for centuries to millennia, making it a long-term carbon sequestration solution. As long as the lands are not developed, the sequestered carbon can remain stored underground.
#2: Agricultural carbon offsets protect soil healthAgricultural offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can enhance or protect soil health by improving soil structure, soil water-holding capacity, and nutrient cycling.
#3: Agricultural carbon offsets reduce methane (CH4) emissionsCH4 capture from livestock and the installation of anaerobic methane digesters for manure conversion and on-farm electricity generation are common agricultural offset projects. They prevent CH4 from entering our atmosphere, and because CH4 is more potent than CO2, removing it is a quick way to slow the rate of global warming, at least in the short term.
#4: Agricultural carbon offsets are relatively cost-effectiveAgricultural offsets from some leading providers (e.g., Vi Agroforestry, One Tree Planted, and Terrapass) cost less than $40 per ton of CO2 offset. Compare this to direct carbon capture offsets which can cost anywhere from $100-$1,200 per ton of CO2.
#5: Agricultural carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individuallyAgricultural offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, CH4 capture, and avoided grassland conversion allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available. 

What Are the 4 Cons of Agricultural Carbon Offsets

Understanding the drawbacks of agricultural carbon offsets is important in order to effectively mitigate climate change.

4 Cons of Agricultural Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
#1: Agricultural carbon offsets can be difficult to monitor and verifyThere are multiple types of agricultural offsets, which can make standardizing, verifying, and monitoring them difficult. Also, we would have to incorporate agricultural offset practices such as biochar, agroforestry, and methane capture on a massive scale and for hundreds of years into the future to exact change on a global level.
#2: Agricultural carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissionsBecause agricultural offsets are only a small subsection of the larger carbon offset market, they are also inadequate in terms of offsetting emissions from our global GHG emissions generation.
#3: Agricultural carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitationsBiochar and agroforestry practices have carbon storage capacity limitations. Studies have shown that too much CO2 in the soil can have negative effects on root water absorption, chlorophyll, starch content, and total biomass. And how much carbon trees can store is dependent on the type of tree and a host of environmental factors, but a typical tree can absorb anywhere from 10-40kg (22-88 pounds) of CO2 per year.
#4: Agricultural carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashingIf emissions are only offset and not reduced from the source, this could lead to greenwashing, when the consumer is deceived into thinking they are offsetting their emissions but in reality, they are not. 

How Could You Offset Your Own Carbon Footprint With Agricultural Carbon Offsets

The market for carbon offsets was small in the year 2000, but by 2010 it had already grown to represent nearly $10 billion worldwide. The voluntary carbon offset market (VCM) is where everyday consumers can purchase carbon offsets to offset their carbon emissions. 

The Ecosystem Marketplace predicts the VCM can grow to $50B by the year 2050. And because agricultural carbon offsets encompass many different types of offsets in a $13 billion industry, they are predicted to gain more traction in the market.

Related: Are you interested in learning more about the best agricultural carbon offsets? Check out the full article here: “Best Agricultural Carbon Offsets”
Agricultural Carbon OffsetsQuick Facts
HuskAbout: Husk converts rice husks into biochar, fertilizers, and biopesticides via smokeless pyrolysis, preventing the re-emission of carbon into the atmosphere. 
Costs: Husk uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit Patch’s website to learn more about pricing. 
Vi AgroforestryAbout: Vi Agroforestry specializes in poverty reduction and environmental improvement through agroforestry and improved farming practices. 
Costs: $28 per 1,000kg of CO2 offset
Native EnergyAbout: Native Energy offers a variety of regenerative agricultural carbon offset projects including avoided grassland conversion, farm methane, and soil carbon.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact.
CarbofexAbout: Carbofex’s pyrolysis technology takes waste biomass from urban or agricultural sources and turns it into biochar, which can then be used to enhance agricultural soils or to produce renewable energy.
Costs: Carbofex uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Puro.earth website to learn more about their respective pricing.
NovocarboAbout: Novocarbo uses pyrogenic carbon capture and storage, which converts CO2 into regenerative energy and biochar. The biochar can be used as soil, as a replacement for cement, and in regenerative agriculture.
Costs: Novocarbo uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Puro.earth, or Carbonfuture website to learn more about their respective pricing.
One Tree PlantedAbout: Carbon offset purchases support agroforestry projects such as the fruit tree planting project in India, which combats deforestation and plants a variety of fruit trees (banana, peach, pear, guava, mango) to provide farmers with food and income.
Costs: $20 per 1,000kg of CO2
Pacific BiocharAbout: Pacific Biochar has partnered with biomass power plants to modify their equipment to produce biochar. They take forest biomass from high fire hazard areas in California, US, and turn it into biochar, which is then distributed on agricultural fields or in collaboration with compost yards.
Costs: Pacific Biochar uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Carbonfuture website to learn more about their respective pricing.
Carbo CultureAbout: Carbo Culture converts COâ‚‚ from plants into biochar and stores it permanently underground.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
TerrapassAbout: Terrapasses farm power offset projects involve capturing methane and generating electricity from livestock manure.
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2
NetZeroAbout: NetZero uses agricultural residues (e.g., coffee or cocoa husks and shells; sugarcane bagasse; coconut shells and fibers; peanut or cashew shells; palm empty bunches) to produce biochar via pyrolysis.
Costs: NetZero uses resellers to sell its solutions. Visit the Puro.earth website to learn more about their respective pricing.

How Can Agricultural Carbon Offsets Help Mitigate Climate Change

Climate change is a severe and long-term consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Agricultural carbon offsets can help mitigate climate change because they eliminate fossil-fuel-derived carbon from our atmosphere which, if left untreated, can remain there for tens of thousands of years and exacerbate the negative effects of climate change.

How is Climate Change Defined

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term global impact of fossil fuel combustion. Every year, approximately 33 billion tons (bt) of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. The carbon found in fossil fuels reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2

“Climate change: changes in the earth’s weather, including changes in temperature, wind patterns and rainfall, especially the increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere that is caused by the increase of particular gasses, especially carbon dioxide.”

Oxford Dictionary

Atmospheric CO2 fuels climate change, which results in global warming. When CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, it traps the heat and acts as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

As the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement outlines, we must cut current GHG emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050

How Do Carbon Offsets Generally Help Mitigate Climate Change

Levels of carbon in our atmosphere that cause climate change have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. The global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today registers at over 400 parts per million. Carbon offsets can help prevent these levels from increasing even more.

When you hear the words “carbon offset”, think about the term “compensation”. Essentially, carbon offsets are reductions in GHG emissions that are used to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere

Carbon offsets that meet key criteria and verified project standards, are additional and permanent, and are a part of projects that are carried out until the end of their lifespan have the best chance of reducing carbon emissions and therefore reducing climate change. 

When we offset CO2 we also slow the rate of global temperature rise, which in turn minimizes the effects of climate change. 

How Do Agricultural Carbon Offsets Specifically Help Mitigate Climate Change

Agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, avoided grassland conversion, and farm methane can specifically help mitigate climate change because they all aim to reduce CO2 emissions, albeit via different pathways. They can also act as permanent carbon sequestration and reinforce our terrestrial carbon sinks.

For example, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), biochar alone could potentially remove up to 2.6 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

What Are Better Alternatives to Agriculture Carbon Offsets

If used correctly, agricultural carbon offsets can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions. They have the potential to instigate meaningful environmental change and begin to reverse some of the effects of climate change. 

However, we can’t let this method be a guilt-free way to reduce carbon emissions. Agriculture offsets must be used in conjunction with direct carbon reduction measures to create long-term emission reductions. 

These reduction measures don’t have to involve drastic changes either. Actions that may seem small can have a big impact because those small changes add up! You can reduce your carbon footprint in three main areas of your life: household, travel, and lifestyle. 

Reduce your household carbon footprint:

Reduce your travel carbon footprint:

  • Walk or bike when possible: The most efficient ways of traveling are walking, bicycling, or taking the train. Using a bike instead of a car can reduce carbon emissions by 75%. These forms of transportation also provide lower levels of air pollution.

Reduce your lifestyle carbon footprint:

  • Switch to renewable energy sources: The six most common types of renewable energy are solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy. They are a substitute for fossil fuels that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global carbon emissions and other pollutants.
  • Recycle: Recycling uses less energy and deposits less waste in landfills. Less manufacturing and transportation energy costs means fewer carbon emissions generated. Less waste in landfills means less CH4 is generated.
  • Eat less meat and dairy: Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global GHG emissions, with beef and lamb being the most carbon-intensive. Globally, we consume much more meat than is considered sustainable, and switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could reduce emissions. 
  • Take shorter showers: Approximately 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used each year in the United States just for showering purposes, and showering takes up about 17% of residential water usage. The amount of water consumed and the energy cost of that consumption are directly related. The less water we use the less energy we use. And the less energy we use, the less of a negative impact we have on the environment.

Because agricultural carbon offsets are an indirect way and not a direct way of reducing emissions, they alone will not be enough to reduce global carbon emissions significantly. Direct measures of emission reductions, such as reducing individual energy use and consumption, are better alternatives to agricultural carbon offsets. 

Related: Are you interested in learning why reducing your carbon footprint is so important? Check it out in this article here: “4 Main Reasons Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is Important”

Final Thoughts

Agricultural carbon offsets seek to mitigate GHG emissions from agriculture including the addition of fertilizers to soils, manure management, field burning of crop residues, and fuel usage on farms. They can protect soil health and reduce methane (CH4) emissions, yet they are difficult to monitor and verify and face carbon storage capacity limitations.

The top waste agricultural offset companies support third-party verified projects involving biochar, agroforestry, avoided grassland conversion into cropland, and CH4 capture/conversion to energy. But although these offsets can instigate meaningful change, they should not be seen as the only solution to climate change. They are effective at reducing CO2 in the short term, but in the long term, they fail to reduce CO2 enough. 

When used in conjunction with direct CO2 reduction measures, carbon offsetting can be much more effective. We should reduce our own carbon footprint as much as possible first, and only then choose the most effective and efficient agricultural carbon offsets.

Stay impactful,

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