Surge of Interest in Soil Carbon Credits Requires Swift Action to Set Clear Standards

EDF review of credit protocols finds inconsistencies with measurement, reporting and verification of net climate impact

July 26, 2021
Hilary Kirwan, (202) 572-3277,
Dr. Heather Goldstone, (508)-444-1553,

(WASHINGTON, DC) Credits for soil carbon sequestration currently lack comparability and consistency, which creates uncertainty in soil carbon markets. Efforts are underway, however, to improve the quality of credits and help realize the full greenhouse gas mitigation potential of agricultural soils.

In a new report — Agricultural Soil Carbon Credits: Making sense of protocols for carbon sequestration and net greenhouse gas removals — Environmental Defense Fund and the Woodwell Climate Research Center reviewed the 12 published protocols used to generate soil carbon credits through carbon sequestration in croplands. The protocols take different approaches to measuring, reporting and verifying net climate impacts, and to managing the vital issues of additionality, reversal and permanence. The result is a confusing credit marketplace where it is difficult to compare credits or guarantee climate benefits have been achieved.

“As addressing climate change becomes ever more urgent, we’re seeing a gold rush of investment in soil carbon credits. The stakes for the climate and farmers are extraordinarily high,” said Emily Oldfield, lead report author and agricultural soil carbon scientist at EDF. “Agricultural soils could remove 4-6% of annual U.S. emissions. We need credible, consistent and cost-effective measurement and verification to know with confidence that soil carbon credits are moving us toward that target.”

Public and private sector efforts are underway to improve measurement technologies and methods and to set unified standards for high-quality agricultural carbon credits that accurately represent carbon sequestration and net greenhouse gas removals.

“Congress has the opportunity to pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act and direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do what is so clearly needed: set guidelines for high-quality agricultural carbon credits,” said Callie Eideberg, director of agricultural policy for EDF. “USDA must be ready to swiftly implement the bill when it becomes law to increase certainty that markets deliver for farmers and the environment.”

“Businesses face intense pressure to reduce emissions at the pace and scale that the science demands,” said Katie Anderson, senior manager for EDF+Business. “Companies must focus on reducing emissions from their own operations and supply chains, as well as investing in high-quality carbon credits. But, it’s crucial that both soil and forest carbon credits have environmental integrity, guidelines for use and that they’re integrated into a clear pathway to decarbonization.”

Soil carbon remains difficult to measure for a variety of reasons. While scientists understand how soil carbon responds to farm management changes, scientists can’t currently predict the amount and longevity of new carbon sequestration on all farms. Detecting soil carbon changes over time requires a high number of samples, which are costly to collect and analyze, and may need to be collected from different soil depths depending on soil type and conservation practices used.

“There are exciting new research efforts and technological developments underway that will greatly reduce the cost of verifying soil carbon credits,” said Jonathan Sanderman, contributing report author and associate scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “Increasing accuracy at scale, while also being able to pass on most of the value of a carbon credit to the farmer, is critical to ensuring functioning carbon markets.”

Agricultural soils can contribute meaningfully to climate mitigation and resilience efforts. Once guidelines and standardization between protocols are in place, the enthusiasm for soil carbon credits can be channeled productively toward slowing the rate of climate change and adapting to impacts that are already here. This will benefit both farmers and the planet.

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