Carbon farming has recently been popularized as an innovative nature based climate solution (NCS) to tackle the pressing issue of excessive levels of atmospheric carbon. The shift of conventional agriculture to carbon farming has the potential of turning the industry, known for emitting large amounts of carbon, into a climate solution that stores carbon in soil and plants. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that soil carbon sequestration holds about 90% of the carbon emission mitigation potential in the global agricultural sector. Historically, agriculture has been notorious for environmental degradation and carbon emissions. Examples include methane emitted from ruminants and the process of desertification due to overgrazing as well as over tilling.
So How is Carbon Farming Different?
Carbon farming consists of using agricultural lands to trap atmospheric carbon. Measures are taken, such as reduced tilling, implementation of long rooted crops, restoration of riparian zones, and the incorporation of organic matter (compost) into soil, to promote continued and prolonged sequestration of carbon into the earth. Carbon farming also has the potential to increase soil fertility and thus crop production, contributing to the mitigation of global food insecurity. Although carbon farming may seem promising at a glance, it carries limitations due to costs as well as time and labor inefficiencies. (These limitations are by no means comprehensive and we will cover additional complications surrounding additionality, leakage and permanence in a future post.)
We believe that these drawbacks, however, are not reason enough to abandon the potential of carbon farming altogether. Carbon farming clearly has an important role to play in a greener, regenerative future.
Many of the above mentioned costs and inefficiencies of carbon farming fall into an important post implementation stage: monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV). MRV is generally conducted by field surveys consisting of extracting soil samples once every few years. Another method is the carbon budget approach, which calculates the fluctuations in soil carbon content using initial photosynthesis estimates and ‘chamber measurements’ or the ‘eddy covariance method’. Although these approaches are effective, they are labor intensive, expensive, and often require specialists, making them better suited for research methods than practical monitoring approaches. Furthermore, these methods measure only the sampled areas in carbon farm plots and do not provide exact data for the entire land, rendering them inefficient in estimating the carbon content of large areas.
What Does This Have to do with CQuest’s Mission Surrounding Global Action on Soil Carbon Sequestration and Remote Sensing?
We believe that the ideal method for measuring soil carbon content must include the ability to take measurements of entire landscapes year round. Remote sensing has vast potential for achieving this ideal monitoring system at a far lower cost than the current monitoring norms offer. Historically, remote sensing has had limited applications in monitoring soil carbon sequestration, however, satellites have already yielded labor and cost efficient results for assessing soil carbon content in some European landscapes with visible near-infrared and shortwave infrared (VNIR and SWIR) sensors. Monitoring soil carbon with remote sensing could potentially be expanded to become the standard system established on carbon farms as it offers a quick, affordable, and accurate monitoring technique, consequently reducing barriers to entry in carbon farming and hopefully increasing global carbon sequestration. The CQuest vision is to democratize access to the carbon market to every farmer, rancher, and landmanger on the planet with remote sensing based MRV.
Monitoring with remote sensing would also assist national incentive programs that reward farmers for the amount of carbon sequestered in their soils as well as contribute to the growth of incentive programs by making carbon farming an affordable option for stakeholders. With continuous monitoring, farmers could be accurately compensated for their efforts without having to perform costly and labor intensive monitoring mechanisms on their own. As the threat of climate change looms, society must continue to commit to the goal of preventing global warming exceeding 1.5ºC. The expansion of carbon farming, with the assistance of remote sensing, may be a critical step in moving the agricultural sector from being one of the most carbon emissive industries to one of the most sustainable.