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Increasing soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks in agricultural soils removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and contributes towards achieving carbon neutrality. For farmers, higher SOC levels have multiple benefits, including increased soil fertility and resilience against drought-related yield losses. However, increasing SOC levels requires agricultural management changes that are associated with costs. Private soil carbon certificates could compensate for these costs. In these schemes, farmers register their fields with commercial certificate providers who certify SOC increases. Certificates are then sold as voluntary emission offsets on the carbon market. In this paper, we assess the suitability of these certificates as an instrument for climate change mitigation. From a soils' perspective, we address processes of SOC enrichment, their potentials and limits, and options for cost-effective measurement and monitoring. From a farmers’ perspective, we assess management options likely to increase SOC, and discuss their synergies and trade-offs with economic, environmental and social targets. From a governance perspective, we address requirements to guarantee additionality and permanence while preventing leakage effects. Furthermore, we address questions of legitimacy and accountability. While increasing SOC is a cornerstone for more sustainable cropping systems, private carbon certificates fall short of expectations for climate change mitigation as permanence of SOC sequestration cannot be guaranteed. Governance challenges include lack of long-term monitoring, problems to ensure additionality, problems to safeguard against leakage effects, and lack of long-term accountability if stored SOC is re-emitted. We conclude that soil-based private carbon certificates are unlikely to deliver the emission offset attributed to them and that their benefit for climate change mitigation is uncertain. Additional research is needed to develop standards for SOC change metrics and monitoring, and to better understand the impact of short term, non-permanent carbon removals on peaks in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and on the probability of exceeding climatic tipping points.
Paul, C., Bartkowski, B., Dönmez, C., Don, A., Mayer, S., Steffens, M., … Helming, K. (2023). Carbon farming: Are soil carbon certificates a suitable tool for climate change mitigation? Journal of Environmental Management, 330. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2022.117142