|Native prairie sequesters a lot of carbon so why can't landowners be paid for protecting it? (Image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)|
Today an article on carbon sequestration in grassland came my way thanks to rancher and biologist Sue Michalsky. The story was posted on the website for Alberta Farmer Express and it is worth a look.
The writer, a range manager and mixed-farmer named Jill Burkhardt, opens by mentioning the provincial carbon offset program out of which many of Alberta’s no-till farmers receive payments. Now, of course, native grassland does a much better job of sequestering atmospheric carbon than even the best conservation tillage system so Jill asks a natural question: “why aren’t landowners with pasture getting paid for their contribution?”
I have wondered the same thing so I posed the question once to a lawyer who has done some work on carbon offset or carbon credit programs. He said that carbon credit systems depend on a protocol that can measure and prove what he calls “additionality.”
Additionality asks the seller of the carbon credits the following question: is the activity providing the carbon sequestration or emission reduction something that would happen even if it were not being used as an offset project? I.e. would it have happened anyway? If the answer is yes, then there is no additionality and nothing that can be legitimately sold as a carbon credit.
|Sagebrush prairie (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)|
This means that native grassland that has been well managed by a single family for generations would not really be seen as providing any additional carbon sequestration, yet someone who buys a piece of broken land might theoretically be eligible for some credits if he plants it to perennial cover, because suddenly that piece of land would be sequestering a measurable increase in carbon.
I realize that that just seems wrong in a whole lot of ways so it is tempting to think maybe we can just ignore this additionality thing and go ahead and establish a carbon credit payment system for people who hold title to native grassland.
Maybe, but not likely. Governments that signed the Kyoto accord have to follow something called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a strict mechanism that is under increasing pressure from scientists and environmentalists to ensure that carbon offset programs, among other instruments, are legitimate and provide an actual net benefit.
Many ecologists and scientists—including Pope Francis in his new Encyclical on the planet’s ecological crisis (see point 171 in this pdf of the encyclical)—have criticized carbon offsets, saying they do not reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions (see this article inThe Guardian).
If additionality is a deal-breaker—and I think it is—then we are going to need to find a protocol that somehow measures and demonstrates real additional benefit with enough rigor to satisfy the accountants of the carbon offset world.
I am not sure how we can do that, but let’s hope there are some agile economic minds out there working on this very question, because it is indeed a challenge that besets the overall effort to compensate and recognize ranchers for their good stewardship. Whether it is carbon offsets or biodiversity offsets, we need real accountability for real and measurable benefits—anything less could backfire on us all in more ways than one.
|image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood|