Soil carbon credits have potential but need clear standards

Guidelines for high-quality credits will help guarantee credits deliver durable climate benefits

Hands holding soil
Our review of soil carbon credit protocols finds inconsistencies with measurement, reporting and verification of net climate impact.

Soil carbon contributes meaningfully to climate mitigation and resilience efforts. Scientists estimate that agricultural soils could remove 4-6% of annual U.S. emissions.

Credits for soil carbon sequestration, however, lack comparability and consistency, which has created uncertainty in the marketplace.

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.

Key findings:

  • Soil carbon protocols take different approaches to measuring, reporting and verifying net climate impacts, and to managing the vital issues of additionality, reversal and permanence. This variation makes it difficult to ensure climate benefits have been achieved.
  • Until these variations can be resolved, paying farmers to sequester soil carbon will remain an uncertain approach to greenhouse gas mitigation but can still deliver important benefits for climate resilience, soil health and water quality.
  • Soil carbon sequestration can become an important mitigation strategy if there is agreed upon, credible, cost effective and consistent measurement, reporting and verification behind the credits.

Progress toward high-quality soil carbon credits:

  • Congress can pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set guidelines for high-quality agricultural carbon credits and make it easier for farmers to participate in carbon markets.
  • Companies can double down on efforts to reduce emissions from their own operations and invest in high-quality carbon credits, such as those that prevent tropical deforestation.
  • Researchers can advance technology that will make it easier to measure soil carbon levels over time and more cost-effective to verify carbon credits.