Soil carbon credits: Benefitting farmers and regenerating the environment

soil carbon
Niels Olsen inspecting his soil

Words: Kelly James, images: Department of Environment and Energy

In 2019, ‘carbon’ is a word that comes laden with negative connotations. We want to reduce our carbon footprint, cut carbon emissions, and many facets of foreign policy revolve around agreements to reduce carbon emissions. However, an innovative Australian company is leading the way in making soil organic carbon work for farmers while offsetting our overall emissions, resulting in higher yields for crops, a healthier environment, and money going directly back to farmers.

Corporate Carbon made headlines earlier this year when it was announced as the first company to receive carbon credits for a soil carbon project, which were also the world’s first soil carbon credits to be eligible under a national greenhouse target in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

With $150 million to pay farmers who build soil carbon over the next 10 years, Corporate Carbon is one of Australia’s leading multi-sector carbon contractors operating under the Australian government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). Having seen the transformative potential of soil carbon using the Soilkee technology, Corporate Carbon established agricultural startup, AgriProve, in 2018 as a vehicle to mainstream soil carbon farming.

soil carbon
Matthew Warnken, Niels and Marja Olsen (land owners) and Clean Energy Regulator CEO David Parker

Corporate Carbon managing director Matthew Warnken explains the company’s mission of helping farmers build soil carbon in their paddocks to sell as carbon credits to governments and organisations with carbon liabilities after Corporate Carbon registered Australia’s first soil carbon project under the Australian Government’s ERF in 2015.

“AgriProve’s goal is to mainstream a farmer led, commercial model of soil carbon farming,” Mr Warnken said.

“AgriProve enables farmers to generate income from carbon abatement activities and secure viable returns in the Australian market.”

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Carbon is naturally present in soil, and higher levels are directly related to greater agricultural output. The higher the soil organic carbon levels, the greater the production. This is because the function of soil organic carbon is improving water holding capacity (especially beneficial in drought-prone Australia) and nutrient availability. It also improves conditions for biological activity, promoting beneficial bacteria, fungi, and worms.

“Soils are the world’s largest carbon sink,” Mr Warnken explained.

“They contain three-times more carbon than the earth’s vegetation and twice the levels in the atmosphere.

“Regenerating soils has enormous potential to draw down carbon and help reverse global warming.”

soil carbon
Analysing core samples

There are a number of active management practices farmers can implement to build carbon in soil, and they can be paid for the additional soil carbon they produce. This is where AgriProve’s Soilkee system comes in.

The Soilkee pasture renovator’s unique simplicity combines multiple activities into one soil treatment, which sows annual crops into perennial pastures, providing a multi-species seeding solution that combines cultivation, aeration and mulching. It fills summer and winter feed gaps; growing better quality feed while building soil carbon.

This ‘salad mix’ approach provides balanced nutrition, feed diversity, organic matter, and nitrogen from legume nodulation, improving soil health and building organic soil carbon. This system helps farmers increase their profitability through increased productivity and earning additional income from carbon credits, while the environment benefits from reduced inputs of greenhouse gas-emitting nitrogenous fertilisers.

The Soilkee Renovator was originally developed by Niels Olsen as a means to regenerate degraded land on his own farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Matthew Warnken heard Olsen speak about his invention at a conference in 2015, saw its potential, and invited him to register for the soil carbon project. Olsen now markets the technology to farmers and contractors; helping them maximise their soil carbon and agricultural productivity.

soil carbon

So how exactly do carbon credits work?

The significance of credits is that they enable farmers to be paid to sequester carbon and at the same time allow liable entities to offset their emissions.

But Mr Warnken says there’s more to it than that.

“It is enabling AgriProve and other carbon project developers to build economies of scale to make carbon farming more accessible to a wider range of farmers so that they can make a material difference to climate change and reverse global warming.”

An Australian Carbon Credit Unit (ACCU) is issued by the Clean Energy Regulator and represents one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent stored or avoided by a project. The ERF is the Australian Government’s mechanism for purchasing carbon abatement, which it does by buying ACCUs from carbon projects like AgriProve.

Agricultural operations can receive carbon credits if they implement new activities to build soil carbon on their land and record measurable increases in soil organic carbon.

It’s expected that carbon credits will help industry organisations such as Meat and Livestock Australia to achieve their target for the Australian meat industry to become carbon neutral by 2030 – a significant achievement for an industry heavily criticised for its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

As for the popularity of carbon credit creation and sale in Australia, the field is off to a solid start, having received backing to the tune of $2.5 million from the US-based Grantham Environmental Trust through their Neglected Climate Opportunities program, and there is enormous potential for growth as the world moves towards curbing emissions under the Paris Agreement.

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With the measurement methods in place, the mechanisms to build soil carbon, and a market for soil carbon credits including the $2.55 billion ERF (which has been supplemented with an additional $2 billion by the newly announced Climate Solutions Fund) Australia is uniquely placed for its land sector to commercialise large-scale carbon abatement.

AgriProve is developing scalable, commercial-sized projects to deliver soil carbon credits to liable entities and other companies looking to offset their emissions. The ERF has already paid out $476 million on carbon credits and $1.8 billion is currently committed, leaving a total of $226 million remaining. The majority of those funds have gone to carbon farming projects.

“Soil organic carbon is in effect a scorecard for regenerative farming practices,” Mr Warnken says.

“The broader remit beyond carbon is to commercialise regenerative practices to enable producers to access a premium supply chain, while the public gains access to more nutritious food and a regenerating environment.”