What if farmers were paid to fight climate change?

Irreversible global warming is almost inevitable.

The key word there is “almost.”

Scientists agree that we need to stay below a two-degree global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels to avoid “catastrophic climate effects,” as the Natural Resources Defense Council has said. To that end, 195 nations around the globe signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, through which participating countries agreed to mitigate their impact on global warming and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The problem? It’s not going to be enough.

The issue with greenhouse gas mitigation

“If all of the nations in the world comply with the commitments they made in the Paris Accord, we’re still going to massively miss the emissions limit,” said Aldyen Donnelly at the 2020 Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. “We will be still discharging 15 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year — more than the most we can afford to be discharging if we want to cap warming at two degrees by 2100.”

But Donnelly, co-founder and director of carbon economics at Nori, a carbon removal marketplace, cautioned listeners not to lose hope. There’s another, better climate change solution: not reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting into the air but, instead, removing carbon from the atmosphere. And it starts not with nations, governments or corporations, but with farmers.

The double benefit of regenerative farming

Nori’s climate change solution involves removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil by using regenerative agricultural methods. In this model, farmers shift away from our current, intensive methods of producing food, fiber and livestock — without sacrificing acreage.

“This isn’t about converting cropland back to grasslands and forests,” said Donnelly. “We know how to produce food and fiber while implementing practices that are rebuilding the soil organic carbon stocks. Scientists generally believe that the adoption of regenerative and conservation practices can recover soil organic carbon stocks worldwide to the level they were at 300 years ago, before we introduced intensive management practices.”

These practices aren’t new. Methods like planting cover crops, reducing or eliminating soil tillage, crop rotation and silvopasture — the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock — have been utilized for decades, centuries and even millennia by farmers across the globe. By encouraging farmers to adopt these practices, Nori’s climate change solution requires no new technology — just a change in mindset.

The potential benefits of following these carbon sequestration practices in agriculture on a large scale are enormous. According to Donnelly and Nori, regenerative and conservation agricultural methods have the potential to remove up to 25 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere — more than enough to cover the 15-billion-ton gap left by greenhouse gas mitigation. And above and beyond the carbon sequestration, these practices lead to healthier, more productive soils over time — a major benefit for a growing population with growing nutritional needs.

“There is no other potential strategy that gives you two benefits at the same time,” said Donnelly. “So why would we spend any money on mitigation strategies that don’t give us those co-benefits before we’ve exploited all of our opportunity to invest in our food and fiber producers’ potential to deliver both these benefits?”

Incentivizing better practices

So how do we get farmers to make the switch?

It involves investing. Platforms like Nori allow individuals and businesses to pay farmers who are engaging in these climate-friendly practices and are doing their part to reduce the greenhouse effect. While it may not be practical to eliminate all carbon emissions in our lives —  which are caused by things like flights, car travel and the electricity in our homes — we can offset the effects of those greenhouse gases by investing in farms that are sequestering carbon and making clean energy a priority.

Nori’s marketplace has already garnered great interest and achieved great success.

“Since last October, we have issued 20,000 carbon sequestration credits, which, in the Nori marketplace, are called Nori carbon removal tons, or NRTs,” said Donnelly. “To date, all of the NRTs we’ve listed for sale on our website have sold out, and they tend to sell out quickly. The average price buyers have paid has been $16.50 per ton. And they’ve been sequestering, on average, nine tenths of a ton per acre, per year.”

While those numbers may seem small, they can add up quickly. And this direct market for carbon offsets doesn’t just incentivize farmers to make the switch to regenerative agriculture practices, one acre at a time. It also allows individual consumers to take charge of their carbon footprint, empowering them to push back in the face of the seemingly impossible challenge of climate change. Where multinational corporations or countries can work slowly, an individual market that pays farmers to implement climate change solutions can help build a grassroots movement toward more sustainable agricultural practices and a healthier planet for all.