What is Carbon Farming?

Article 29 April 2022 Experience: Farms and estates

Carbon farming is a general term for a variety of agricultural methods aimed at sequestering atmospheric carbon into soil, crop roots, wood and leaves. Its proponents consider the practices a bold new agricultural business model with potential to tackle climate change. Here, we discuss the nature of carbon farming along with an update on wider environmental schemes and their integration into UK government policy.

When plants photosynthesise, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it, when they die, this carbon is either released back into the atmosphere or stored for long periods of time in the soil. Conventional agricultural practices result in the release of carbon, whilst carbon farming, in simple terms aims to take excess carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil where it may aid the growth of plants with the goal of creating a net loss of carbon from the atmosphere.

The practice is often carried out by individual landowners who are given incentives to use and integrate carbon sequestering methods. Some examples of practices that can help are:

  • Returning leftover biomass to the soil as mulch after harvest. As it decomposes, the residue fuels the carbon cycle in the soil;
  • Replacing continuous monocultures with higher diversity crop rotations and use of cover crops in off seasons to keep the soil enriched;
  • Replacing use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides with integrated nutrient and pest management techniques;
  • Afforestation and integrating trees and livestock with croplands.
  • Restoration of peatlands and wetlands

Carbon farming is said to have the additional benefits of enhancing crop production, restoration of degraded soils, purifying groundwater and reducing pollution. At scale, these practices have potential to assist with reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change. As such, carbon farming is high on the agenda in drawing up new legal environmental frameworks on a national and supra-national scale.

Critique

Carbon farming is not without its challenges or disadvantages. As well as the benefits to farmers and wider society, some practices are considered to have negative impacts such as trade-offs for soil health, biodiversity or animal welfare. Careful (and therefore potentially expensive) monitoring is required to ensure the correct safeguards are in place and to ensure the incentives favour actions with multiple benefits.

The challenge remains for government, how it is possible to make this form of regenerative farming financially viable by paying farmers to rejuvenate degraded soils by turning their fields into vast carbon dioxide sponges. To monetise the concept is to incentivise farmers to make environmentally better choices and be rewarded accordingly. Wider farming policy in the UK has not always been cognisant of climate change and the farming sector has contributed significantly towards greenhouse gas emissions; but the picture may be changing…

ELMS- Environmental Land Management Schemes

Post the 2020 Agriculture Act and the UK’s departure from the EU, the government has published details of three new voluntary schemes in England. The ELMS are an over-arching concept that will reward environmental land management and are intended to give support to rural economies whilst working towards net zero emissions by 2050.

1. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) that pays farmers to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way to a set of published standards (with the more advanced ‘ambition’ attracting a higher reward payment). This includes actions such as reducing inorganic fertilizer and pesticide use, improving biodiversity, water and air quality and carbon sequestration. The initiative has a target of at least 70% of farmers covering at least 70% of farmland.

2. Local Nature Recovery – a scheme that will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and encouraging collaboration between farmers. This scheme, that will begin piloting in 2023, is a successor to ‘Countryside Stewardship’, and is arguably more ambitious. There will be particular focus on making space for nature within the farmed environment; examples include peatland restoration, habitat creation and natural flood management.

3. Landscape Recovery focuses on longer term, potentially larger and more radical projects such as restoration, planting and rewilding. Around 10 such schemes are committed to be delivered by 2024 covering some 20,000 hectares with a phased rollout planned thereafter.

The schemes may be conceptualised as a move away from more arbitrary land-based subsidies characterised by the EU era, and instead shift focus onto more outcome-based practices centred around farmers themselves in their role as stewards of the natural environment. Farmers will be able to enter into a combination of schemes where appropriate and processes should be more streamlined.

Whilst it is too early to consider the success of such schemes, the intention to develop long term, legally binding targets for the wider environmental good should surely be seen as a positive. There has been criticism that measures proposed fall short of what is required, particularly to halt declining species numbers and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers have broadly welcomed the information provided thus far on the transition to post-Brexit environmental management, but request further clarity, particularly in regards to opportunities for tenant farmers to get involved and the lack of immediate availability of funds. Agencies like the National Trust have been largely supportive of the aims of ELMS but suggest the approach is more evolutionary in concept than perhaps the revolution envisaged, and have reiterated calls for long term funding arrangements to ensure successful outcomes.

How we can assist?

Withers’ rural property team specialise in advice to landowners and estates on a wide variety of management and succession issues. We advise on forestry investment and increasingly, are advising clients who are looking at carbon capture opportunities and biodiversity offsetting.

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