Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

The federal government is developing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission “offset” protocols. Under these offset trading systems, large emitters, such as oil refineries or fertilizer factories that produce emissions greater than those allowed under Canada’s regulations, can buy offset credits from projects that reduce emissions or remove GHGs from the atmosphere. Reductions in one place are seen to offset emissions in another.

Some farmers have been waiting decades to sell “carbon credits.” The government is now developing an Enhanced Soil Organic Carbon offset credit protocol. The idea is that farmers, by adopting enhanced practices, can capture and store (“sequester”) carbon dioxide (CO2) as carbon in soils and this can offset fossil fuel CO2 from large emitters. Many experts, however, question the legitimacy and effectiveness of soil-based offset schemes.

The National Farmers Union shares those concerns.

Our organization has sent a report to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) listing 18 reasons why governments should shelve soil-based offset plans. Here are five of those reasons:

1. Temporary soil sequestration cannot offset essentially permanent fossil fuel emissions. Carbon released from deep geological deposits into the atmosphere via fossil fuel extraction and combustion is essentially permanent (the resulting carbon/CO2 remains in the atmosphere/biosphere for centuries — much of it for more than a thousand years). In contrast, soil sequestration — carbon captured just inches below the surface — is not permanent. The sequestered carbon/CO2 is easily released by changes in farming practices, changes in land use or even by rising temperatures or drought. Temporary storage cannot “offset” permanent release.

2. There is no capacity within soils to offset fossil fuel emissions. Why are agricultural soils able to absorb atmospheric CO2/carbon? Because past farming practices released carbon. And the quantity that soils can absorb is roughly equal to the quantity released by those past practices. Crucially, the carbon released from those soils is still in the atmosphere in the form of CO2, which persists for centuries. When we think of agricultural soils sequestering CO2, we should not think of those soils absorbing that GHG from current or future fossil fuel combustion, but rather reabsorbing CO2 from past soil emissions.

9. Offsets delay and diminish emissions reduction. To quote Canada’s federal and provincial ministers of environment: “GHG offsets take the place of direct emissions reductions...” (Pan-Canadian Greenhouse Gas Offsets Framework.) Large emitters buy offsets to avoid spending money to actually reduce their emissions.

12. Many farmers don’t want payoffs from the largest emitters. In offset markets, when farmers get money for doing the right thing, they receive payment so that others can continue doing the wrong thing — so that high-emitting corporations can minimize investments in emissions reduction. Offset credit payments attempt to draw farmers into schemes that greenlight, or greenwash, the high emissions that endanger our future.

18. The relative ease of offsets does not match the magnitude of the emergency we face. The recent UN Emissions Gap Report states that humanity is on track for 2.5 C to 2.9 C of warming this century — far above the 2 C Paris Agreement line that marks extreme danger. Thus, we are on track to scorch ecosystems and crops, parch water supplies, maim economies and displace, or kill, millions of people. As a response to this extreme crisis, trading dubious offsets is wholly inadequate. It is in this context that the NFU urges governments to shelve offset schemes and instead use the full extent of their spending, educational, research, regulatory, leadership and governance powers to ensure that every sector rapidly reduces their actual emissions.

Rather than complex schemes to catch carbon in agricultural soil after it is released, do not release it, writes @DarrinQualman #cdnpoli

Offsets are the wrong approach. It is wrong to release CO2 from fossil fuels and then pretend to store it in soil. Superior alternatives can be implemented. Rather than complex schemes to catch carbon after it is released, do not release it.

Shelve dubious offsets and instead take ambitious steps to make deep and rapid cuts to emissions in all sectors.

We must avoid making a disastrous policy error: staking our future on offset protocols, emissions trading and similar schemes that will delay emissions reduction and will fail to stabilize the climate for farmers and all citizens of the world.

Darrin Qualman is director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmers Union.

Keep reading