No Rip-Offsets

No Rip-Offsets

Agriculture, forests and land-based carbon credits

Published by Institute for Policy Studies Sustainable Energy
and Economy Network

Ecosystems such as forests, fields, and soils, in their natural state, sequester carbon dioxide. However, when forests are cut or cleared or replaced with plantations, their sequestration is compromised. Similarly, when soils are cleared, tilled and otherwise damaged, they, too, lose much of the carbon stored in the earth to the atmosphere. Therefore, one of the drivers—and one of the solutions—to climate change involves special care with regard to land use practices, including farming and forestry practices, and livestock management. Sustainable farming and forest management will be critical in  resequestering carbon from our atmosphere. The question remains: What laws, financial support and other measures are needed to incentivize sustainable land use practices? In the early stages of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the notion that land-based sinks should be part of any carbon trading regime was rejected. Now, there is a huge push, coming largely from industrial agriculture and forestry, to reintroduce carbon offsets for credits from land-based sinks in the international carbon trading regime. In 2009, the U.S. House and Senate provided the first major opening for these offset credits for land-based sinks with climate legislation that has yet to pass both Houses. Should this legislation pass, it would open up a Pandora’s box of possible land-based carbon offsets globally, creating a land grab for carbon offsets globally.

Tons of carbon offsets proposed in 2009 U.S. House and Senate climate bills: 2 billion

Share of global and US manmade greenhouse gas emissions that 2 billion tons of carbon represents, respectively: 7% and 28%[1]

Share of domestic carbon offsets in US legislation that could come from agriculture: 1-1.5 billion tons.

Share of US carbon offsets that could come from soil carbon sequestration: 100%

Year in which soil carbon sequestration was ruled out by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Executive Board as qualifying for carbon offsets: 2003

Agency that will oversee the integrity of U.S. agricultural offsets, including soil-based carbon offsets: US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

US Government agency commonly accused of being captive of agribusiness[2]: USDA

US Agency that claimed carbon offsets were impossible to verify: US Government Accountability Office[3]

Percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions that comes from non-energy sources: 35%[4]

Percent that comes from nitrous oxide and methane emissions from agriculture: 14%[5]

Percent that came from land use change, primarily for agricultural production: 18%[6]

Share of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funding that goes to agricultural offsets: 6%

Share of CDM credits in Malaysia that went to palm oil plantations: 90%

Share of CDM credits in Mexico that went to pig farms: 50%

Purported origin of swine flu virus: Smithfield Foods factory hog farms in Mexico

Corporation that would benefit economically in three different ways if its herbicide, RoundUp, were applied to its genetically modified crops which then qualified for “no till” carbon offset credits: Monsanto

Amount of acreage globally that is currently no-till: 100 million hectares

Amount the US EPA estimates agricultural and forest offsets will increase net revenues for landowners by 2020 and 2050 respectively: $1-2 billion and $20 billion per year[7]

Amount of carbon offsets the US EPA estimates can be provided by forests and farming by 2020 and 2050. respectively: 175 and 643 million[8]

Share of 2008 US emissions this represents: 3% and 9%[9]

Total annual value of US agricultural production: $200 billion[10]

Share of US emissions from US food system: 18%

Number of people that would be required to supervise and validate agricultural offsets in the U.S. if all agricultural offsets were used: over 1000[11]

Fuel which has been implicated in causing climate change which is incentivized under U.S. Waxman-Markey bill: Biofuels

Length of time biofuels are exempted from EPA regulations on international climate impacts: At least 5 years.

Amount of arable land globally required for grainfeed for industrial livestrock: one-third

Chemicals responsible for climate change released in feedstock operations: Nitrous oxide, methane

One of the proposed “solutions” to climate change: biochar, the creation of charcoal for burial in soil, thereby theoretically sequestering the carbon.

Main continent targeted for biochar: Africa

Potential amount of carbon that biochar could sequester: 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year[12]

Amount of carbon sequestered by U.S. forests and soils in 48 contiguous states: 90 billion metric tons

Amount of carbon that could be sequestered with an increase in forest cover on some US farm land: 3-7 billion tons[13]

Amount of land for biochar plantations required to sequester 1 billion tons of carbon a year: 500 million hectares[14]

Size of India: 328 million hectares[15]

Estimated hectares of tropical forest remaining in the world: 1.5 billion[16]

Type of farming that has the potential to recapture more than 2/3rds of the present excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: biodiverse agro-ecological farming and agroforestry




[4] Stern Review on climate change


[6] Ibid




[10] Ibid.

[11] Personal conversation with US EPA official

[12] Lehmann, J. et al, Biochar Sequestration in Terrestrial Ecosystems: A Review (2006).


[14] Ernsting, A. & Smolker, R. Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction? (Biofuelwatch, 2009);



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