Draft Soil Enrichment Protocol Incentivizes Carbon Storage

The Climate Action Reserve (CAR) released a first draft of its new Soil Enrichment Protocol (SEP) on April 17th that gives carbon credits for regenerative farming practices. The purpose of the protocol — available for public comment — is to provide guidance on how to quantify, monitor, report, and verify agricultural practices that enhance carbon storage in soils. The primary greenhouse gas (GHG) benefit targeted is the accrual of additional carbon in agricultural soils. The public comment period is open until May 18, 2020.

soilsWhen the committee to write this protocol was announced, it was cause for excitement and celebration. Here was an opportunity to give credit for land stewardship that is so critical to both our fight to slow climate change and to provide the resilience required to adapt to the changes that are already here. I just went through the draft. I had been hoping for the soils/land use equivalent of a call to arms, a real page-turner. Instead, the SEP draft reads more like a revision to the tax code. The focus of the document is on appropriate sampling and verification. Delineating appropriate types of land, time frames, ownership of credits, and externalities are also discussed.

If you are looking for in depth descriptions of practices to rebuild soils this is not your document. There is more here on nitrous oxide emissions from animal urination than there is on compost or compost use. Reading it as a soil scientist, I would note that the nitrous oxide discussion is lacking sophistication in terms of emissions as a function of soil texture, crop type and local climate. I would also note that sampling for changes in soil carbon should be required to include measures of bulk density. As carbon increases, bulk density typically decreases.

By focusing on percent carbon there is a high potential to overestimate soil carbon reserves. As someone who is passionate about soils and land use, I just see a lost opportunity. Perhaps there is a supporting document that I’m missing. With the document I just read, it seems that the very strict emphasis on verification ends up giving you a protocol that is not likely to result in significant land management change. The authors are clear that for the increases in soil carbon to be valid and verified, they have to persist for 100 years. It seems a waste to have a focus on the 100-year time frame when there is so much we could accomplish if we just focused on the next 10 years.

Public comments on the draft SEP are due by close of business on Monday, May 18, 2020. CAR requests comments be submitted in MS Word format.

Sally Brown, University of Washington

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