Paying for pasture carbon called tricky issue

Paying ranchers for carbon sequestration in grasslands is on the Alberta government agenda but it could be challenging to put into practice.

“It is going to take some time to get done,” said Alastair Handley, founder and president of Carbon Credit Solutions based at Airdrie, Alta. The company has about 3,000 growers involved in generating carbon credits on cultivated land.

The federal government carbon market program is also considering generating credits from forestry, agriculture and biowaste. If that program comes into effect, a rancher who restored a riparian area, changed grazing practices or made other improvements could generate credits.

If Alberta has a new government after April 16, some of the rules may be changed, creating market uncertainty, Handley said.

The United Conservative Party tabled a policy to drop the price of carbon from $30 per tonne to $20 per tonne of emissions. Growers signed up for carbon sequestration plans could see a drop in payments, said Handley.

When it comes to grasslands, policy makers want to recognize new carbon storage to meet international emissions targets. This can be measured on cultivated acres but it can be complicated to figure out on land that has never been tilled, said Ed Bork of the University of Alberta.

“They want clear, empirical evidence that shows a certain management practice will have a definitive impact in enhancing carbon,” said Bork.

His research into grasslands, carbon storage and diversity on the landscape reveals a complex system. Since the West was settled more than 100 years ago, large amounts of soil carbon have been lost when grasslands were plowed for crop production. The grasslands may contain up to about 80 tonnes of carbon per acre, where it is stored in the roots of plants and soil.

Measuring the subtle changes on well-maintained grasslands is difficult because the carbon amounts remain stable for decades and management changes may improve carbon by only two to five percent.

“Politicians only want to pay for new carbon if they can predict it with certainty,” Bork said.

His job is to gather the data and show which practices make changes on the land and then turn it over to the politicians to figure out how to reward producers.

“The strongest argument we can probably make is existing carbon has been maintained at high levels in native grasslands should be valued at a premium. We know if we cultivate those areas we will lose the carbon. We will lose 40 to 50 percent of it,” he said.

Tracking carbon storage on grazing lands is confounded by variability on every ranch. Soil texture, salinity, moisture, regional climate, landscape location, different plant communities and land use differ from one ranch to the next.

Research projects are looking a link between grazing practices, plant diversity, exotic species and soil carbon levels.

“A lot of the carbon that is built up under these native grasslands is there because there was thousands of years of carbon input from this very diverse assemblage of plants much of which was below ground. It got turned into organic carbon,” he said.

They are still determining what improvements and plant communities contribute to carbon sequestration.

“Some people like to hear the native grasslands and the native species assemblages are the best. Our data don’t necessarily suggest that. The introduced species by adding diversity and more productivity may actually be introducing more carbon,” he said.

Healthy grassland stores more carbon and the benefit to the rancher is higher soil organic matter that holds more water, nutrients and provides the resources plants need to grow.

Ranchers argue species diversity, carbon storage, flood mitigation, water filtration and other benefits have economic value.

“All those ecological goods and services right now are unquantified,” he said.

The value of grasslands and putting an economic value on them needs a societal attitude shift. The public doesn’t generally understand the importance of grasslands and often consider this land as empty space.

“Most Canadians don’t typically understand the importance of many of our grassland ecosystems,” Bork said.

Measuring the carbon and monetizing it is the challenge of Viresco Solutions in Alberta. Led by Karen Haugen-Kozyra, the company helped develop carbon offset programs and worked with Fertilizer Canada to develop a nitrous oxide emission reduction carbon offset protocol, as well as build carbon offset credits and carbon intensity scores.

She is working with the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association to measure and monetize carbon stored in grasslands.

Federal CAP funding is being considered for a pilot around the protocol to measure and pay for carbon.

“We are going to work across the western Canadian provinces where most of the grasslands exist,” she said.

Talks are underway with a major energy company that could match government funds to pay for the project. It is interested in buying the eventual tonnes of carbon that are preserved and not emitted.

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