Agricultural Carbon Offsets: All 5 Pros and 4 Cons Explained
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Hey fellow impactful ninja ?
You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.
Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.
But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.
First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.
And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.
First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.
And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.
When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.
When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).
And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.
You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.
Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.
The agriculture industry is crucial to economic growth, accounting for roughly 4% of global gross domestic product (GDP). But for all of its pros, it is also one of the top emitters of climate change-inducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Carbon offsets can help reduce these emissions so, we had to ask: What are the pros and cons of agricultural carbon offsets?
Agricultural carbon offsets are a cost-effective method of long-term carbon sequestration that protect soil health and reduce methane emissions from livestock; however, they can also be difficult to monitor and verify, and they face scalability and carbon storage capacity limitations.
Keep reading to find out all about what the pros and cons of agricultural carbon offsets are, how you can offset your carbon footprint with them, how they can mitigate climate change, and what better alternatives to waste management carbon offsets 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”Oxford 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
Agricultural carbon offsets are a specific type of carbon offset designed 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.
“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:
- Soil carbon maintenance
- Methane (CH4) capture from livestock
- Peatland management
- Livestock and manure management
- Nutrient management on cropland and grasslands
And of these practices, some of the most common agriculture carbon offset projects typically involve:
- Biochar: CO2 absorbing-charcoal that is formed when biomass (e.g., crop residue, grass, trees, waste) is combusted in the absence of oxygen at temperatures of 300–600°C (572-1112°F). It can be tilled into soils, stored in long-lasting products, buried deep underground, or used as an additive for construction, plastics, paper, and textiles.
- Agroforestry: the integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems. Alley cropping, forest farming, silvopasture, riparian buffers, and windbreaks are all examples of agroforestry practices.
- Avoided grassland conversion to cropland: grasslands are often identified as key areas for conversion to cropland because they account for 20-40% of Earth’s land area and have rich soils. Protecting this ecosystem is crucial to maintaining biodiversity and its carbon storage capacity.
- Methane (CH4) capture: Agriculture is the predominant source of methane (CH4) emissions, which is 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere. CH4 capture from livestock and the installation of anaerobic methane digesters for manure conversion and on-farm electricity generation are common agricultural offset projects.
|Pros of Agricultural Carbon Offsets
|Cons of Agricultural Carbon Offsets
|Agricultural carbon offsets can store carbon for long periods of time
|Agricultural carbon offsets are difficult to monitor and verify
|Agricultural carbon offsets protect soil health
|Agricultural carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for our global emissions
|Agricultural carbon offsets can reduce methane (CH4) emissions
|Agricultural carbon offsets face carbon storage capacity limitations
|Agricultural carbon offsets are cost-effective
|Agricultural carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions
|Agricultural carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually
What Are 5 Pros 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.
Pro #1: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Can Store Carbon For Long Periods of Time
Agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar offer long-term carbon storage.Agriculture Carbon Offset Pro #1
Experts estimate that biochar tilled into soils and not disturbed can store CO2 for centuries to millennia, making it a long-term carbon sequestration solution. Also, biochar that has been incorporated into soils is 10-100 times more stable than the biomass it was derived from, leading to less carbon leakage and a slower overall rate of CO2 degradation. As long as the lands are not developed, the sequestered carbon can remain stored underground.
In short, agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar offer more permanence than other methods of carbon sequestration, with biochar locking away CO2 for centuries or millennia.
Pro #2: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Protect Soil Health
Agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can improve soil structure and nutrient cycling.Agriculture Carbon Offset Pro #2
Biochar is commonly used as a fertilizer because it breaks down slower than traditional animal manure. Studies have shown that biochar can enhance agricultural productivity and soil sustainability by improving soil structure, soil water-holding capacity, and nutrient cycling. Its ability to persist longer in soils also leads to decreased erosion and reduced runoff.
Some agroforestry practices, such as planting trees amongst crops or grazing fields, can also improve soil health. Trees cycle nutrients, allowing animals and fungi who live in the soil to flourish. Tree roots also bind soil in place, leading to reduced erosion and increased water filtration.
Lastly, avoided grassland conversion projects protect grassland biomes, which are commonly turned into cropland or grazing lands. Temperate grasslands in particular are known to have dark, fertile, nutrient-rich soils due to the decay of branched, grass roots. When grasslands become degraded, the soils re-emit carbon which is converted to CO2 in the atmosphere.
In short, agricultural carbon offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, and avoided grassland conversion can enhance or protect soil health.
Pro #3: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Can Reduce Methane Emissions
Agricultural carbon offsets involving methane (CH4) capture and conversion to energy can lower atmospheric CH4 levels.Agriculture Carbon Offset Pro #3
Agriculture is the predominant source of methane (CH4) emissions, with livestock alone accounting for approximately 32% of human-caused CH4 emissions. CH4 is 25 times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere, which exacerbates global warming.
CH4 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.
In short, agricultural offsets reduce CH4 emissions via CH4 capture, combustion, or conversion to energy projects.
Pro #4: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Are Cost-Effective
Agricultural carbon offsets are a cost-effective method of carbon emission reductionAgriculture Carbon Offset Pro #4
Agricultural carbon offsets are not just cost-effective, but the externality costs of inaction are dire. The agricultural sector is responsible for around 12% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is the biggest contributor of methane, a GHG more potent than CO2. Agricultural carbon offsets are one of the ways to reduce these emissions and create more sustainable agricultural practices.
For example, agricultural 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.
In short, agricultural carbon offsets are relatively cost-effective when compared to other methods of carbon emission reduction.
Pro #5: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Can Help Offset Carbon Emissions That Can’t Be Reduced Otherwise
Agricultural carbon offsets allow us to reduce carbon emissions in ways we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.Agriculture Carbon Offset Pro #5
We already have governmental-level policies in place to reduce carbon emissions, but carbon offsets allow us to reduce emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available.
Carbon offsets are designed for situations where emissions are impossible to reduce because you can use those funds to reduce emissions in other areas. For example, we can only do so much to reduce our individual carbon footprints. Using public transportation, washing with cold water, and switching from single-use to sustainable products lowers our carbon footprint, but it does not eliminate them completely. This is where agricultural carbon offsets come into play to compensate for the remainder of our carbon emissions.
In short, agricultural offsets such as biochar, agroforestry, CH4 capture, and avoided grassland conversion allow us to reduce GHG emissions from activities where sustainable alternatives are not yet widely available.
What Are 4 Cons of Agricultural Carbon Offsets
Agricultural carbon offsets can 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.
Con#1: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Are Difficult to Monitor and Verify
Agricultural carbon offsets can be difficult to standardize, verify, and monitor.Agriculture Carbon Offset Con #1
Agricultural emissions themselves are difficult to measure and manage because there are hundreds of millions of farmers around the world, most of which are farming small plots of land. In order to exact change on a global scale, 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. This would be difficult to do both socially and economically.
In addition, the fact that there are multiple types of agricultural carbon offsets makes them difficult to standardize, verify, and monitor.
For example, Verra, the American Carbon Registry, and the Gold Standard all have different methodologies for biochar and biochar projects. There are also different governing organizations for biochar, including The European Biochar Certificate (EBC), The US Biochar Initiative, and The International Biochar Initiative.
In short, the many different types of agricultural offsets can make standardization, verification, and monitoring difficult.
Con #2: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Are Not Yet Scaled to Compensate For Our Global Emissions
Agricultural carbon offsets are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHG we emit annually.Agricultural Carbon Offset Con #2
Carbon offsets in general are currently not sufficient to compensate for all of our carbon emissions. We emit more than 37 billion tons of carbon annually, but carbon offset credits for only ~1 billion tons of CO2 have been listed for sale on the voluntary market. The number of sellers also exceeds the number of buyers by about 600-700 million tons. Because 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 agricultural production.
In addition to the 37+ billion tons of CO2 we emit every year, we emit approximately 570 million tons of CH4, a significant amount of which comes from agriculture. Experts also predict the world’s population will increase by 2 billion people in the next 30 years. More people means more mouths to feed; therefore, agriculture production and subsequent GHG emissions from agriculture will continue to increase.
In short, agricultural offsets occupy a small part of the carbon offset market and are not yet scaled to compensate for the billions of tons of GHGs we emit.
Con #3: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Face Carbon Storage Capacity Limitations
Carbon storage capacity limitations prevent agricultural offsets such as biochar and agroforestry from being scalable enough to compensate for all of our carbon emissions.Agriculture Carbon Offset Con #3
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that global soil carbon sequestration could mitigate up to about 5.3 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2030. However, for as much as our soils can store CO2, too much can have adverse effects.
Studies have shown that too much CO2 in the soil can have negative effects on root water absorption, chlorophyll, starch content, and total biomass. So although the upper limit of soil carbon sequestration is relatively unknown, soil CO2 saturation can become an issue before the upper limit is even reached. This means biochar can only store a finite amount of CO2 in our soils.
Agroforestry also faces carbon storage capacity limitations because trees can only store so much carbon. 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.
If we use an average of 40 pounds of carbon absorbed, we would need to plant more than 200 billion trees every year to compensate for all of our emissions. A number that is far away from the about 1.9 billion trees currently planted every year.
In short, carbon storage capacity limitations of biochar and agroforestry prevent agricultural offset efforts from compensating for all of our carbon emissions, though we still have a long way to go to reach full storage capacity.
Con #4: Agricultural Carbon Offsets Do Not Reduce Your Own Carbon Emissions
Agricultural carbon offsets do not reduce your own carbon emissions, which can lead to greenwashing.Agriculture Carbon Offset Con #4
One of the main limitations of carbon offsetting, in general, is that 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.
If 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. Companies accused of greenwashing either invest in non-verified credits, do not prioritize in-house emissions reductions, or double-count carbon credits. Or sometimes, all of the above.
In short, because agricultural carbon offsets do not reduce your own emissions, they could lead to greenwashing.
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.
|Agricultural Carbon Offsets
|About: 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.
|About: Vi Agroforestry specializes in poverty reduction and environmental improvement through agroforestry and improved farming practices.
Costs: $28 per 1,000kg of CO2 offset
|About: Native Energy offers a variety of regenerative agriculture carbon offset projects including avoided grassland conversion, farm methane, and soil carbon.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact.
|About: 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.
|About: 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 Planted
|About: 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
|About: 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.
|About: Carbo Culture converts CO₂ from plants into biochar and stores it permanently underground.
Costs: Costs are determined after initial contact
|About: Terrapasses farm power offset projects involve capturing methane and generating electricity from livestock manure.
Costs: $16.51-$17.63 per 1,000kg of CO2
|About: 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.
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.
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:
- Wash with cold water: Washing clothes in cold water could reduce carbon emissions by up to 11 million tons. Approximately 90% of the energy is used to heat the water, so switching to cold saves also saves energy.
- Replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs: Fluorescent bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent ones, saving energy and thus reducing electricity demand and GHG emissions.
Reduce your travel carbon footprint:
- Fly less: Aviation accounts for around 1.9% of global carbon emissions and 2.5% of CO2. Air crafts run on jet gasoline, which is converted to CO2 when burned.
- 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.
- Switch from single-use to sustainable products: Reusing products avoids resource extraction, reduces energy use, reduces waste generation, and can prevent littering.
- 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.
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, they also can 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.
For all of the good carbon offsets can instigate, 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.
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