Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low-Carbon Economy: How to Create, Measure, and Verify Greenhouse Gas Offsets

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As the United States moves to a low-carbon economy in order to combat global warming, credits for reducing carbon dioxide emissions will increasingly become a commodity that is bought and sold on the open market. Farmers and other landowners can benefit from this new economy by conducting land management practices that help sequester carbon dioxide, creating credits they can sell to industry to “offset” industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

This guide is the first comprehensive technical publication providing direction to landowners for sequestering carbon and information for traders and others who will need to verify the sequestration. It will provide invaluable direction to farmers, foresters, land managers, consultants, brokers, investors, regulators, and others interested in creating consistent, credible greenhouse gas offsets as a tradable commodity in the United States.

The guide contains a non-technical section detailing methodologies for scoping of the costs and benefits of a proposed project, quantifying offsets of various sorts under a range of situations and conditions, and verifying and registering the offsets. The technical section provides specific information for quantifying, verifying, and regulating offsets from agricultural and forestry practices.

Visit the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions website for audio from the press conference announcing the book.
Read the press release announcing the book.

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Editorial Reviews

Coeli M. Hoover

“Overall, this volume should be quite useful to anyone who needs to understand the emerging market for carbon offsets. . . . Readers with a natural resources background will find the discussion of the policy and economic aspects of carbon offset projects instructive, and those with a business or policy background will gain a good understanding of the technical aspects of quantifying the various carbon pools. For policymakers, this book is an excellent overview of a complex and growing topic. Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low-Carbon Economy is a thorough well-written treatment of an important topic, and is a useful reference for those in agriculture, business, forestry and policy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341680
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University is a nonpartisan institute that engages with decision-makers in government, the private sector, and the nonprofit community to develop innovative proposals that address critical environmental challenges, with offices at Duke University and in Washington, D.C.

Zach Willey is a Senior Economist at Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit organization that links science, economics, and law to create innovative, equitable, and cost-effective solutions to society’s most urgent environmental problems. Willey specializes in developing economic solutions to greenhouse gas emission and natural resource degradation problems in terrestrial ecosystems. Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, is former chief scientist of Environmental Defense and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

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Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low-Carbon Economy

How to Create, Measure, and Verify Greenhouse Gas Offsets

By Zach Willey, Bill Chameides

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9692-5


The Role of Landowners and Farmers in the New Low-Carbon Economy

A new economy is coming—a low-carbon economy in which greenhouse gas emission allowances and offsets will be a commodity that is bought and sold on the open market. Landowners and farmers, the people who work the land, will have a competitive advantage in this new economy because land, if properly managed, can be made to store carbon. Industries that emit carbon dioxide will pay landowners and farmers who store carbon to offset industrial emissions.

Why a Low-Carbon Economy?

The low-carbon economy will place a premium on technologies that can produce energy with little or no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as on activities that help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Why? The answer is simple: global warming. While uncertainties about climate remain, the basic facts of global warming are now well established:

• The globe is warming. The warming is due in large part to emissions into the atmosphere of CO2 and other heat-trapping or greenhouse gases (GHGs) that result from human activities.

• Unless we slow the rate of these emissions, the consequences could be dangerous, expensive, and irreversible.

In a communiqué issued in June 2005,11 national academies of science (including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) held that "the scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action ... We urge all nations ... to take prompt action to reduce the causes of climate change."

The only way to curb human-induced climate change is to reduce emissions of CO2 and other GHGs. And the only way to accomplish that is to move to a low-carbon economy that values technologies that limit GHG emissions and devalues technologies that produce GHG emissions.

Momentum toward a low-carbon economy is building. Thirty-five of the world's developed countries have agreed to reduce their GHG emissions 5 to 8 percent below 1990 levels through the Kyoto Protocol. While the U.S. government has not joined the Kyoto process, many states and local governments have made Kyoto-like commitments. California has committed to a cap on its state-wide greenhouse gas emissions that will lead to substantial cuts in emissions in the coming decades. Four other southwestern states (Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington) have joined California in the Western Regional Climate Initiative with the goal of setting a regional greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal. Nine northeastern states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and agreed to cap CO2 emissions from power plants. Many other states have announced climate initiatives and are considering statewide caps on GHG emissions. In the private sector, major U.S. businesses (including Alcoa, BP America, DuPont, Caterpillar, and General Electric) have formed the United States Climate Action Partnership calling for mandatory caps on the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the United States has yet to adopt a mandatory program to reduce GHG emissions, many people believe it is only a matter of time before it does. Indicative of this is a resolution passed in 2005: "It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases (S.AMDT.866)."

The Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy

History has shown that markets, rather than mandatory controls, can be the most cost-effective way to cut pollutant emissions. In a regulatory system, a market approach often takes the form of a "cap-and-trade" mechanism. Such a mechanism caps total emissions from regulated entities—which may include a specific sector, such as power production in the case of RGGI, or the entire economy, as in the case of Kyoto—at a specified level, usually significantly below the current level. Regulators then assign individual emitters allowances, or caps, such that the total allowances equal the overall cap. Emitters have some period of time to comply with their cap.

Emitters can comply in three ways. First, they can use efficiency measures, technological advances, or lower activity levels to reduce their emissions. Second, they can purchase allowances from other emitters who have reduced their emissions below their caps. Third, they can purchase carbon offsets from individuals or entities, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere or prevent GHG emissions. This market approach allows emitters to find the cheapest way to meet their individual caps, as emitters that would incur relatively high costs can acquire allowances and offsets from those that can generate them at lower costs.

In this approach, CO2 and other GHG emissions become a commodity that is bought and sold, and the marketplace (rather than regulators) determines the price of carbon allowances and offsets. These allowances and offsets can be relatively cheap or costly, depending on supply and demand. Businesses and individuals also have an incentive to develop cost-effective methods of reducing GHG emissions and creating carbon offsets. By allowing the marketplace to control the price, the system guarantees that emitters will choose the most inexpensive and effective methods for reducing or offsetting emissions.

In unregulated systems, corporations and individuals can voluntarily cap their GHG emissions, as some companies have done. Cities and other municipalities have also adopted voluntary caps on the emissions arising from government activities. Voluntary caps usually do not include trading, but emitters may still purchase offsets when internal efforts to boost efficiency and adopt new technology do not produce the desired results. Here again the marketplace sets the price of the carbon offsets. As more companies and individuals take on a cap, demand for offsets rises, as does the price they command.

Despite the absence of a mandatory nationwide cap on GHG emissions, a U.S. market for carbon offsets is already burgeoning. Numerous companies have formed to buy and sell offsets, while other companies have emerged to verify and register those offsets. Many of these companies can be identified through a simple Internet search. However, potential buyers should exercise caution because the system is not yet regulated, and many developers of offsets do not yet follow rigorous procedures for creating them, such as those outlined in this volume.

Farmers' Entrée into the Low-Carbon Economy: Carbon offsets

Land-management practices can play a significant role in slowing the buildup of GHGs. Forests and farmlands act as natural carbon storehouses, or sinks, offering major opportunities to reduce global warming. As forests grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, storing (or sequestering) vast amounts of carbon in wood, leaves, roots, and soils. Agricultural practices such as no-till or low-till farming, grassland restoration, and the use of cover crops also sequester carbon in soils. By protecting and restoring forests, replanting grasslands, and improving cropland-management practices, landowners can help reduce atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.

Besides removing carbon already released into the atmosphere, better land-use practices can also reduce emissions of potent GHG such as methane and nitrous oxide. For example, using fertilizer more precisely can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide from soil. Reducing the saturation of soil with water (particularly during rice cropping) can curb methane emissions, as can the capture and burning of methane emitted from manure.

While environmentalists have pointed to the potential for these activities to slow global warming, farmers and landowners today have little economic incentive to adopt them. However, this will change as the transition to a low-carbon economy puts a market value on land-management practices that store carbon and reduce GHG emissions.

In fact, even where caps on emissions remain mostly voluntary, offset projects targeting carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are already under way. In the Northwest, the energy company Entergy has funded Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, a nonprofit composed of more than 100 farmers, to create marketable offsets by using low-till farming to sequester carbon in soil and lower CO2emissions. In the Midwest, a grain-milling cooperative is creating offsets based on the land-management practices of several hundred farmers in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa, such as the use of no-till farming to store more carbon in soil. In the Northeast, a group of dairy farmers is seeking buyers for offsets based on cuts in methane emissions resulting from the use of anaerobic digesters to treat manure. In the South, a consortium of farming operations is creating offsets by shifting to low-till cropping to reduce CO2 emissions, changing crop rotations to store more carbon, and improving livestock and manure management to reduce methane emissions.

The Potential of Offsets Based on Land Management

Land-management practices have the potential to make a significant dent in GHG emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the United States emits some 6,000 million metric tons of CO2 each year, as well as the equivalent of another 1,000 million metric tons of CO2 in the form of other greenhouse gases, including methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons. Overall, annual GHG emissions total the equivalent of some 7,000 million metric tons of CO2 (see Figure 1.1).

If the United States takes no steps to reduce GHG emissions, how large would they be in, say, 2025? The recent past can provide a clue. In 1990, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were equivalent to about 6,100 million metric tons of CO2 per year; in 2004, they were reaching nearly 7,100 million metric tons. GHG emissions are therefore rising at an annual rate of about 1 percent. Without a limit on such emissions, we can assume they will continue to rise an additional 1,600 million metric tons per year by 2025, to the equivalent of about 8,700 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

Climate models suggest that by the later part of the twenty-first century, humanity must reduce global GHG emissions by about 50 percent from their present rates to avoid dangerous climate change (O'Neill and Oppenheimer 2002; Den Elzen and Meinshausen 2005) This prospect is challenging to say the least. In the United States, this would require cutting annual emissions by some 3,500 million metric tons of CO2. The good news is that we do not have to attain this 50 percent reduction immediately. We can slowly ramp down our emissions to reach the 50 percent reduction by the end of the century, when new technologies and energy sources will hopefully have replaced the carbon-intensive forms we rely on today.

Over the next 20 years or so, developed nations might reasonably aim to lower their emissions by about 15 percent (Den Elzen and Meinshausen 2006). For the United States, this would require cutting the equivalent of about 1,000 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Adding the estimated annual increase in GHG emissions during this period of 1,600 million metric tons, the United States would have to find emissions cuts equivalent to about 2,600 million metric tons of CO2 per year. Although not as imposing as the 50 percent target, this goal will still significantly test our economic and technological ingenuity.

Could land-management practices help the United States meet the 20-year target cut of 2,600 million metric tons of CO2 per year? Consider a recent EPA study (2005), which estimated the potential for carbon offsets from land-management practices (see Figure 1.2). Not surprisingly, as the price of offsets rises, more farmers and landowners opt to participate in the market, and thus the total amount of offsets also increases. The amount of offsets also depends on time. Although the amount of offsets grows as more farmers and landowners participate and soils and forests increase their capacity to store carbon, the amount of offsets could peak in 2025 because soils and forests eventually become saturated with carbon and lose their ability to store more. The amount of offsets could even decline if cutting of forests used to create offsets outstrips reforestation.

The results from the 2005 EPA study suggest that land-management practices can play a major role in enabling the United States to meet the emissions target over the coming decades if the price of carbon offsets is high enough. If offsets command a price of $15 per ton of CO2, land-management projects could offset almost 1,500 million metric tons of CO2 per year by 2025—around 60 percent of the needed reduction. At $50 per ton, offsets could total almost 2,000 million metric tons of CO2 per year—nearly the total required cut in emissions.

Will the price of offsets be high enough to generate the needed amount? That depends on demand. In the United States, where emissions caps are voluntary and the market for offsets is currently relatively weak, offsets are now selling for a few dollars to about $10 per ton of CO2. However, in the European Union, which has adopted a mandatory cap under the Kyoto Protocol, CO2 prices rose into the range of $30 to $40 per ton of CO2 in 2006. This suggests that if the United States adopts a mandatory cap, the price for offsets will be high enough for land-management practices to play a major role in meeting the cap. Because carbon offsets will be critical in the transition to low-carbon technologies, farmers and landowners who enter the offset market early stand to profit the most.

The Need for Offset Quantification Guidelines

While projects based on changes in land-management practices have the potential to offset significant amounts of GHG emissions and to provide a new income stream for farmers and landowners, they present significant challenges to the individuals and entities that undertake them. At the front end of an offset project, developers need to reliably estimate its potential value and thus the amount of GHG mitigation it is likely to produce. As any farmer can attest, projecting crop yields at the beginning of a planting season is difficult. In an offset project based on changes in land management, developers must attempt to project outcomes over many years, in some cases more than a decade. Moreover, to market the GHG mitigation they achieve, project developers must reliably document it. This, in turn, requires developing and implementing a comprehensive plan for monitoring and analyzing the results of the project, as well as contracting for independent verification of the plan and its implementation.

Monitoring itself presents challenges. Instead of simply documenting the yield of wheat or com, land managers must quantify the amount of carbon they store in soil or forest wood or the amount of methane they capture from processed manure. To ensure that the project does in fact lead to real GHG benefits, land managers must also often track conditions and carbon-sequestration rates on nonproject lands. They must make a long-term commitment to monitoring and tracking. Not only does the amount of carbon a project adds to soil or forest vary from year to year, but the carbon stored in years past can be lost because of fire or annual changes in climatic conditions. Finally, marketing carbon offsets requires careful analysis of monitoring and tracking data to ensure that the offsets claimed are accurate with a known and acceptable level of uncertainty.


Excerpted from Harnessing Farms and Forests in the Low-Carbon Economy by Zach Willey, Bill Chameides. Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Preface ix

Part I. Overview

1. Introduction: The Role of Landowners and Farmers in the New Low-Carbon Economy 3

2. The Process of Creating Offsets 10

3. Land-Management Options for Creating Offsets 22

Part II. Steps in Determining a Project's Offsets

4. Step 1: Scoping the Costs and Benefits of a Proposed Project 39

5. Step 2: Determining Additionality and Baselines 46

6. Step 3: Quantifying the Carbon Sequestered in Forests 52

7. Step 4: Quantifying the Carbon Sequestered in Soil 64

8. Step 5: Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Manure 75

9. Step 6: Quantifying and Minimizing Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Soil 84

10. Step 7: Estimating Leakage or Off-Site Emissions Caused by the Project 91

11. Step 8: Verifying and Registering Offsets 99

12: Conclusion: Putting These Guidelines into Pratice 107

Appendices 109

Notes 209

Bibliography 215

Index 223

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2009

    Good book, just beware of verification issues

    An encouraging read which looks at a growing economy. Only the limited information on other rigourous markets such as the UN's CDM is to fault. Forests are also considered a poisoned chalice when it comes to the green economy due to early poor use as carbon offsets.

    Ben, Director, www.clear-offset.com

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