Carbon Farming & Carbon Credits

Carbon farming has recently appeared in the news as a set of agricultural practices that promises to help alleviate CO2 issues and combat global warming.
Carbon Farming & Carbon Credits
The scheme is stated to be one of the most robust of its kind, having several innovative design features developed to deal with integrity and perverse impact risks, and promote co-benefits.Flickr [Creative Commons]

In December 2011, the Australian Government introduced the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI), a project-based, baseline-and-credit offset scheme for emissions and removals from the land use, land use change and forestry, agriculture and waste sectors. The scheme is stated to be one of the most robust of its kind, having several innovative design features developed to deal with integrity and perverse impact risks, and promote co-benefits. On 27 April 2021 the European Commission published a technical handbook on how to set up and implement carbon farming in the EU, aimed at helping private actors and public authorities start up carbon farming initiatives. The gap of about a decade between the two initiatives speaks volumes about the grindingly slow pace at which the governments across the world address the issues of climate change and global warming even as these has assumed alarming proportions.

What is Carbon Farming? The term though small will require an elaborate answer for us all to understand it. Living organisms use only a small fraction of the known chemical elements to carry out all of their biological functions. Virtually all the molecules in a living organism contain carbon and that too in abundance. Six elements that make up more than 99% of matter in living systems are: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and calcium. Five other elements found in much smaller amounts are: sodium, magnesium, sulphur, chlorine, and potassium.

An atom is the fundamental unit of chemical matter and consists of a nucleus, containing positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. Ions are charged species resulting from the gain or loss of electrons from a neutral atom or molecule. Some atoms, like sodium, readily lose electrons, while other atoms, such as fluorine, readily gain electrons. Atoms and ions combine through chemical bonding, which can be covalent, where electrons are shared, or it can be ionic, where an attraction between the oppositely charged ions holds them together. A chemical reaction is a process in which a substance(s) is/are converted into one or more new substances with different properties and composition. The substances we start with are called the reactants, and the substances we obtain are called the products. An important feature of chemical equations is that they must be balanced. Some chemical reactions produce energy and some reactions consume energy. Energy is produced when the reactants have more energy than the products, and energy is consumed when the reactants have less energy than the products.

The element Carbon is often called the chemical basis for life. This is because carbon is very stable and capable of forming bonds, so biochemistry can be considered to be a branch of organic chemistry. Bio-molecules are complex chemical substances which form the basis of life. These contain carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids and proteins. In all these bio-molecules, carbon is the chief component present in their structure. Bio-molecules are complex chemical substances (macromolecules) which form the basis of life. Bio-molecules contain carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids and proteins. Carbohydrates are poly-hydroxyl carbon compounds, lipids contain long hydrocarbon chains of fatty acids, proteins contain amide linkage and nucleic acid contains nucleotides which in turn contain sugar as a moiety (carbohydrates). It is natural to conclude that carbon is the chief building block present in the structure of all bio-molecules and hence form the chemical basis of life.

The catenation property exhibited by carbon enables it to form a huge number of compounds. Organic chemistry is the branch of chemistry which deals with study of carbon compounds including synthesis, properties and chemical reactions. Wohler is the first scientist who synthesized urea (a carbon compound present in the urine of human beings) in the lab. Afterwards, Kolbe generated acetic acid in the lab which is present as Vinegar, which is used as a preservative in kitchens.

Carbon farming has recently appeared in the news as a set of agricultural practices that promises to help alleviate CO2 issues and combat global warming. However, this area in agriculture science is still under development, and there are many questions as to how farmers, companies, and governments can carry out the practices described in carbon farming. Carbon farming is a set of practices that transfer carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil and plants. Carbon sequestering is the actual physical process of capturing carbon and putting it back into soil and plant matter, while carbon farming is the broad array of practices used in agriculture to accomplish carbon sequestering. The most widely held carbon farming definition includes both elements of land management, environmental science, and agricultural practices.

Carbon is stored in soil through a process called soil carbon sequestration. In this cycle, regular photosynthetic processes and natural plant matter decay via soil microbes and create soil organic matter which traps and sequesters CO2 from the atmosphere. High levels of organic matter indicate a healthy soil system, which means that particular plot of land can adequately store carbon. This healthier soil is rich and loamy, as opposed to the thin soil found in deforested areas. Deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, mining, and other human processes strip the land of soil organic matter, resulting in more CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Carbon farms are agricultural and land management projects that work to benefit the environment and revive the land, rather than take up limited resources. They are specifically designed to store carbon in soil and to increase the health, water retention, and vitality of land areas. Carbon farms also function as productive agricultural ventures, usually creating their own compost by regularly rotating crops. These farms don’t always have to be agricultural - tree farms and soil reclamation projects can also have a carbon farming component. Carbon farms are designed to restore soil through a positive feedback loop. Carbon in the plant and soil system leads to healthier agricultural and local ecologies. Additional practices, such as reducing the use of pesticides, organically boosting soil nitrogen levels as opposed to using synthetic nitrogen products and moving away from monoculture farming to mixed crops will help sequester carbon in soil and reduce greenhouse gases.

Tillage, the practice of the preparation of soil for agricultural use by upturning and breaking up the soil, is a major cause of erosion inasmuch as it destroys plants’ root systems which hold soil in place. These root systems are also essential for storing carbon and water. Over time, tillage strips soil bare of life-giving properties by ripping up root systems and killing essential microbes. The negative effects of tillage have resulted in the birth of the no-till farming movement. Before the invention of the plough, all agriculture was no-till farming. Now with modern advancements in technology it is easier than ever for farmers to move to a no-till farm system. No-till soil also provides more food for plants, resulting in more nutrient-dense crops. No-till agriculture keeps soil bacteria and root systems intact, preventing erosion and sequestering CO2. Control of erosion goes hand in hand with carbon sequestration in agriculture. In fact, great soil quality and high levels of soil organic matter create stable soil that is resistant to erosion. Carbon sequestration via terracing - planting on the side of hills and slopes in rows - has been used for centuries to prevent erosion. Contour plowing, ploughing along the contours of the land, follows the same principle. This method prevents gullies and rills from forming by allowing water more time to filter into the soil.

Spreading crop residues, manure, or compost over the land delivers microbes and nitrogen directly back into the soil in a non-toxic fashion. Compost and crop residue from rotated crops provide a cheap alternative to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers so that farmers can supplement or replace them entirely. Cover crops, like clover, can reintroduce nitrogen back into the soil. When livestock grazes on cover crops, their manure can benefit root systems and restore nitrogen balance to recently-farmed land plots. Cover crops are a historically traditional way of restoring land fertility, and they help create soil that is naturally absorbent of CO2.

It seems that in every news story about an environmentally-conscious celebrity who enjoys the pollution-producing services of a private jet, and in every corporate sustainability report attempting to explain away high greenhouse gas emissions, there's a mention of them: carbon credits. Like magic, they seem to erase the effects of carbon-intensive activities. But what are carbon credits, and how do they really work? Carbon credits are a highly regulated medium of exchange used to 'offset', or neutralize, carbon dioxide emissions. A single carbon credit generally represents the right to emit one metric ton of carbon dioxide or the equivalent mass of another greenhouse gas. In the voluntary carbon offset market, individuals and businesses purchase carbon credits on a voluntary basis in order to lower their carbon footprint, or the total amount of carbon emissions that result from their activities. Carbon offsets can mitigate the environmental damage caused by emissions-producing activities like using electricity, driving a car or traveling by air. They are often offered as an add-on fee when purchasing flights, rental cars, hotel rooms and tickets to special events.

Larger companies, governments and other entities may be required by law to purchase carbon credits in order to limit greenhouse gases. This 'compliance market' of carbon offsets is based on the cap and trade principle, which sets a limit on the amount of pollution a company is allowed to emit within a period of time. If the company stays under the limit, it can sell the remainder of its carbon credits to other companies. When companies or individuals purchase carbon credits, where does the money go? In the voluntary market, carbon offsets are used to fund projects which absorb or eliminate an amount of carbon dioxide gas that is equal to the amount emitted. When consumers purchase carbon credits from reputable carbon offset providers, the money is used for specified projects like planting forests, which absorb carbon naturally, or diverting methane gas from livestock farms for conversion into electricity at a power plant. Another type of offset, called renewable energy credits (RECs), supports renewable energy efforts like wind or solar power. While carbon offsets reduce a verifiable amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, RECs supply a certain amount of renewable energy power to the market, subsidizing the cost of developing these technologies.

In the case of mandatory carbon credits, the goal of placing a value on carbon emissions is to induce carbon credit purchases to choose less carbon-intensive activities. Companies that emit less enjoy higher profits by selling their rights to produce carbon dioxide emissions. This way, emissions become just as integral a cost of doing business as materials or labor. Essentially, carbon offsets work by allowing polluters to pay others to make their carbon reductions for them. Some critics of the carbon credit system argue that this method reduces personal responsibility for controlling greenhouse gas emissions, allowing purchasers to use excessive electricity at home or drive a fuel-intensive vehicle without guilt. Companies with a larger profit margin could use carbon credits as a license to pollute freely. There are also issues with the validity of the carbon reductions promised by some carbon offset providers. Some companies claim to provide carbon offset services by funding tree-planting schemes that are not verified or regulated, so that concrete carbon reduction numbers aren't available. Those wishing to purchase carbon offsets voluntarily should seek out providers like TerraPass and Carbon Fund, where emissions reductions are verified by independent third parties.

Of course, the mandatory carbon credit market and cap and trade system has its own complex set of pros and cons, frequently debated by governments, corporations, environmental experts and the public. There is significant disagreement on whether cap and trade is superior to a carbon tax, which would be levied on the use of fossil fuels, and whether carbon trading schemes should be managed internationally or within individual nations. We believe we must all work together to embrace sustainability. We work passionately with organizations to empower their people to halt the climate crisis and improve society in everything they do. And by working this way we will build a sustainable brighter future for us and our planet.

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are author's own.

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