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Carbon Credits From Regenerative Agriculture: Ensuring Additionality & Permanence

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Last week, we hosted our third Soil Carbon Removal Think Tank session – a series of webinars bringing together leading experts in the fields of soil carbon removal & the voluntary carbon market (VCM).

Additionality & permanence are two core concepts in carbon certification. They’re crucial benchmarks in the making of a high-quality credit – and yet, they're widely regarded as the trickiest parts of carbon offsetting to understand.

Given their perplexity, how can we ensure them in the context of carbon credits from regenerative agriculture?

We invited Clara Rowe of Restor, Andrea Vera of FORLIANCE & Asger Strange Oelsen of Forest Stewardship Council to dive deep into this crucial inquiry.



THE ADDITIONAL POTENTIAL OF NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS

Nature-based solutions (NBS) refer to a suite of activities which harness the power of nature to combat climate breakdown, while providing solutions to a number of other major challenges facing contemporary society.

Drawing on her experience at Restor, Clara asserts that forest restoration alone has the potential to improve food security for over 1 billion people & sequester around 30% of atmospheric CO2 from the industrial revolution's inception. That's just forests.

Immense potential lies below our feet. According to the 4permille initiative, if the global soil organic carbon content increased by 0.4% annually all anthropogenic carbon emissions would be fully offset. Our soils are the largest carbon bank on earth, and if utilised correctly, they can go above and beyond the status quo of carbon removal.




WHY ARE PERMANENCE & ADDITIONALITY SUCH IMPORTANT CRITERIA?

If we want to utilise the VCM to neutralise emissions from business-driven operations, understanding additionality & permanence is crucial.

When it comes to additionality, a carbon credit must provide additional benefits above and beyond business-as-usual for it to authentically meet a company’s net-zero goals. 

Andrea of FORLIANCE emphasised that this necessitates the need to credibly demonstrate emission removals wouldn’t have occurred without project implementation.

Why? Because if not, we risk financing an activity that would have taken place without carbon finance, rather than funnelling climate funding into where it’s most needed. 


On the other hand, longevity is the central aspect of permanence. CO2 circulates in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, so we need to make sure removal is equally long-lived.

In nature-based solutions, permanence is often linked to the risk of reversal. As a result, we need to make sure projects are grounded in comprehensive frameworks & robust methodologies to mitigate that risk.



HOW DOES ADDITIONALITY WORK IN PRACTICE?

Given the perplexity that often clouds the concept of additionality, how can we ensure it in practice?

Proving additionality can only be done with a robust and transparent baseline. A baseline must provide the most authentic representation of a project's carbon sequestration capacity while shedding light on what would’ve happened without carbon finance.

If high integrity isn’t employed at this initial level, we risk the possibility of under compensating projects – or just as easily, crediting carbon that hasn’t been removed.

Following this, Andrea asserts we need to make the case for it being additional: that it wouldn’t have been possible without carbon finance, and hence no climate benefits would’ve taken place.

To credibly demonstrate such, barrier analyses’ are utilised. Through this, we can contextualise how the existence of carbon finance will get any given project off the ground. Barriers can be manifold, including financial, technological, institutional, social & educational.

Proving additionality can be a lengthy process. But as market participants, it’s our duty to adhere to these robust structures while simultaneously utilising the latest scientific developments to maintain integrity, transparency & impact.


HOW CAN WE ENSURE PERMANENCE?

If you look at the likes of tree planting programs that led to lower overall tree cover, you can swiftly conclude permanence in NBS isn’t as simple as it seems.

But just because it’s historically been done wrong doesn’t mean it can’t be done right.

When done right, nature-based projects are one of the most powerful solutions to the climate catastrophe we collectively face. How, then, can we ensure permanence in NBS? 

Looking at previous failed projects, one thing sticks out like a sore thumb: their inability to accurately account for the human stakeholder. If there’s no real incentive for stewards to preserve sequestered carbon, there’s no guarantee it will stay there.

As Clara highlights, economic regeneration is essential for the longevity of NBS. We can only scale restoration, regeneration & conservation if the projects are economically valuable for the communities in which they occur.

As Andrea emphasises, the carbon market is a key vehicle for scaling ecosystem regeneration, but we need to take the long-term perspective. It’s not just a case of scaling as many projects as possible, but more understanding how the system makes sense over the long-term trajectory.

If you take the case of regenerative agriculture, the continuation of regenerative management makes sense. It delivers higher economic value than conventional yields after a mere three years, enhances resilience, offsets the cost of inputs & builds a farms capacity to deliver key ecosystem services. Therefore, even when carbon finance revenue streams come to a halt, these projects can continue to flourish for years to come.

Balancing scalability with accurate support, knowledge & empowerment is a high-wire all NBS carbon programs must walk.



WHY DO WE NEED CONTEXT-SPECIFIC RESTORATION?

When we talk about nature-based solutions, we’re talking about complex systems, not mechanistic ones. Each project is different, delivering different value in the process. Where these projects fail, it’s because we’ve failed to take into account the very complexity of their being.

A holistic approach to restoration is imperative. Whether it’s societal, ecological or climatic systems, they’re each intertwined in complex and overlapping ways. Carbon is just one of many services provided by these complex systems.

 As put nicely by Clara, ”We often view biodiversity or societal change as the added value of restoration projects, but it’s the other way around. Carbon is the co-benefit of restoration.”

In a sense, the way we value nature has been distorted by our overwhelming emphasis on carbon. You need look no further than tree planting projects that have forged ahead to deliver quantity without accounting for complexity. 

Just because there’s more trees to capture carbon doesn’t mean there’s more value. If you plant non-native trees or don’t mix forests, projects can end up wreaking havoc on biodiversity, threaten native species & make the area more susceptible to risk.

Despite good intentions, thinking exclusively about carbon can result in partial solutions to complex problems. A holistic approach must always prevail.



CAN WE FINANCE PRESERVATION?

The carbon market has been designed to achieve emission reductions & removals in as little time as possible. Consequently, it naturally favours projects with high carbon flux density.

Currently, we’re almost disincentivizing pioneers who have been implementing ecologically sound practices over an extended period.

They’ve showcased vast climate leadership & paved the way for the rest to follow. And yet, because their soils, forests, or peatlands aren’t directly capturing the same extent of carbon as an off-the-ground project, they’re penalised.

According to Asger, we need to make a business case for protecting nature, not just carbon optimising nature. If we change that fundamental metric, we can much easier govern & create incentives for climate neutrality.

“In an ecosystem, it’s not about having five more bees in a year. It’s about having a safe bee population – that’s what’s of real value.”



CLOSING REMARKS

Nature-based solutions have a vital role to play in reaching our net-zero ambitions. They’re not a silver bullet solution. But if employed responsibly under the guiding principles of additionality & permanence, they provide a fundamental building block in our path to adaptation, mitigation & regeneration. 

While these concepts are undeniably complex, how a project defines them can make or break the legitimacy of our efforts. 

As market participants, we all have a role to play in striving for the highest level of transparency, integrity and impact. A meticulous effort must prevail.


 

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