The hidden link between your dinner and fighting climate change

Why we need to talk about regulatory, agricultural offsets

What on Earth are offsets?

In many parts of the world, farms already play an important role in regulating pollution. From New Zealand to Europe, California to South Korea, market-based systems, known as cap and trade or emissions trading, provide companies economic incentives to meet certain emissions targets.

A sign saluting Mark’s grandfather. Photo: Adam Jahiel for NRCS

Where offsets fall short

Carbon offsets deliver emissions reductions to regulated polluters and financially support environmental projects like Mark’s farm, but they aren’t without issues. When it comes to offset methodology design and pricing, there’s a fine line to walk: an offset that is too expensive is not going to sell, while a low price tag may be a symptom of unmet carbon benefits. This general principle can stifle high standards for quantifying carbon removals and ensuring those tons really have been removed.

Agricultural offsets around the world

The California cap and trade market, around since 2013, has offered non-livestock-based agricultural offsets since 2015. The most famous attempt to sell carbon offsets into the California market was by a group of rice growers in Arkansas, California and Mississippi — the “Nature’s Stewards” (Mark is a member of this group). These farmers voluntarily implemented conservation farming practices on their rice fields before the protocol for rice-based offsets was approved; the protocol inspired the push to verify and record the carbon benefits of their practices.

Mark in his field. Photo: Adam Jahiel/NRCS
The Australian ewe survived, no thanks to Australian voters. Photo: jasper wilde/Unsplash

The future of agricultural offsets

To avoid repeating the errors of the past, we can’t assume the kinks in agricultural offsets will work themselves out. Farmers deserve payment for their carbon services, but regulatory compliance systems around the world are missing the mark. As it stands, emitting industries aren’t incentivized to purchase effective agricultural offsets, farmers fail to receive robust payments (if any at all) for conservation benefits, and regulatory regimes can’t change fast enough to account for shifts in the agricultural carbon-storage landscape.

A new breed of climate-focused NGO working to build a world that removes more carbon than it emits. Newsletters 👉

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store