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Researchers, Lawmakers Debate Carbon Markets

Shalamar Armstrong, associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University, holds a shovel full of soil, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Fowler, Ind. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
Shalamar Armstrong, associate professor of agronomy at Purdue University, holds a shovel full of soil, Thursday, July 13, 2023, in Fowler, Ind. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
Researchers, Lawmakers Debate Carbon Markets
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Agricultural emissions are getting more attention from U.S. officials, researchers, and industry professionals. One big area of debate is the link between carbon storage and carbon markets.

New Policies

Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a $300 million investment to monitor agricultural emissions. The investment will help create a research group to monitor carbon levels in soil.

American lawmakers also proposed a measure to support research needed to “properly credit soil carbon storage.”

The USDA announcement and the law are both aimed at the difficult question of how to measure carbon stored in soil. The issue is important if the young soil carbon market is to avoid the opposition directed at current carbon credit markets.

Carbon storage

The Congressional Research Services describes a carbon market as an economic idea “that supports the buying and selling of environmental commodities that signify GHG (greenhouse gas) emission reductions” or storage.

The general idea is that some kinds of farming methods can support carbon storage. As a result, some farmers can get money in the form of carbon offsets — payments that companies can make that support carbon storage in farms.

Shalamar Armstrong is an associate professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “The more carbon you store from the atmosphere with your crops, and the more crops grown throughout the year, you offset some of your waste,” he said. The carbon that was stored would have instead been released into the atmosphere, he explained.

But much about carbon storage remains unknown.

“The science piece (of carbon credits) has really lagged behind, particularly when it comes to things like monitoring, reporting and verification,” said Cristel Zoebisch, a policy director at climate organization Carbon180.

Armstrong has been trying to help fix the problem of measuring carbon storage. He runs a lab where researchers are investigating how farming method affects the amount of carbon in soil across different kinds of land. He and others at Purdue have been studying soil samples that date back more than 40 years.

He hopes his findings will help farmers make decisions that could result in earnings from storing carbon and without losing any crop profit.

Carbon markets

But other experts worry that even if farmers do get paid for storing soil carbon, bigger issues remain.

Carbon offsets in the U.S. have to meet four conditions. They have to store carbon that would otherwise be released. The offsets also have to be verifiable in data, immediate and long-lasting, said John Sterman, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Carbon storage research might make the offsets more verifiable, but such research does not deal with other problems.

For example, many American farmers do not own the land on which they grow crops. As a result, these farmers cannot guarantee that carbon stored on their land will stay in place if someone else works the same property.

Barbara Haya of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at University of California, Berkeley, says the research she has worked on shows that the effects of carbon offset projects are commonly overestimated. Carbon trading has, in her words, “failed miserably” over the last 20 years. She advises moving away from the process.

Jared Huffman, a lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, last month proposed a bill to support farmers in making improvements to soil health. He said farmers in the area he represents would be interested in entering carbon markets with strong accounting systems. But he added that those hoping for serious climate action should not depend only on offsets.

I’m John Russell.

Melina Walling reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in The Story

commodity – n. something that is bought and sold

signify – v. to be a sign of (something) : to mean (something)

lag– v. to be in a position that is behind others

verify – v. to prove, show, find out, or state that (something) is true or correct