Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making good on ecological goods: grassland carbon offsets?

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


  1. I think the whole carbon trading thing is a distraction with major unintended consequences. But while we're playing the game, additionality does make sense.

    But the main issue is that a well managed, healthy grassland is NOT good at carbon sequestration. It is an excellent carbon reservoir, but sequestration refers to fixing additional atmospheric carbon and healthy grasslands are pretty much at equilibrium with atmospheric C.

    The prevented carbon mechanisms are the ones that are more appropriate for healthy grasslands,to provide incentives not to plough the land and release the C.

    Restoring a degraded grassland is an excellent way to sequester atmospheric carbon.

    Good managers should be rewarded for their efforts, I agree. But there is a whole raft of policies that need to be explored and revised beyond Carbon. In South Africa, farmers get tax incentives for joining the biodiversity stewardship programme, for example

    1. Thanks Alan for clarifying. Carbon reservoir, not sequestration. I assume a standing forest would be similar. I'd like to learn more about that stewardship program you mention--which aspect do you feel has been most successful? If you prefer you can email me at

  2. Hello Trevor. I agree with Alan, the majority of carbon in grasslands is stored in the root system (85% of total biomass). A mature and stable grassland system, if there is one, is a carbon repository, not a sequestration system. Carbon credit payments are for sequestering additional carbon. This is questionable proposition in the grassland system: if you plow over a piece of native prairie and immediately plant perennial grass, there will be no change in the stored C after 13 years (according to some studies). If you plant wheat instead of perennial grass, you lose about 19% of soil organic carbon a year, majority of it within the first few years. As you mentioned in the post, perverse incentives pushed by governments could theoretically entice farmers to plow a piece of native prairie, grow crops for a few years and then get ESS payments to seed tame grass. There is a small benefit in capturing additional carbon with no-till agriculture and under SOME grazing intensity regimes (through encouraging increase in root biomass). Payment for ESS to encourage carbon sequestration through agricultural practices is mostly a political move, with little actual benefit. What would be a more effective way in managing soil organic carbon, is to charge a tax (or other type of “penalty”) for converting a native prairie into a crop field. Unfortunately, this would be a political suicide and not likely to happen.

  3. I did not want to sound too negative about payments for ESS in agricultural systems. There are many land use practices farmers and ranchers could contribute to help the society maintain a healthy environment, and they should be rewarded for it. One example easy to understand is to encourage farmers to maintain strips of native prairie (or a grassland rich in flowering plants) as a source of food and nesting sites for wild pollinators, a major source of crop pollination on a global scale. Wild pollinator visits and crop yields generally drop with increasing distances from natural and semi-natural areas, which suggests that crop yields on some farms are already affected by inadequate pollination.

    Through intensifying agricultural production and by messing up with natural systems, we are reducing the stability of our food sources. I would have no problems if the society rewards good land stewardship, so we assured to have enough food to eat in the years to come.

    Through intensifying agricultural production and by messing up with natural systems, we are reducing the stability of our food sources. I would have no problems if the society rewards good land stewardship, so I we assured to have enough food to eat in the years to come.


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