Can You Earn Carbon Credits on Pasture & Rangeland?

The short answer: Yes! Pastures and rangeland can earn carbon credits, especially when practices are put into place to promote vegetative regrowth and soil stability.

However, there are two different pathways for earning carbon credits: 1) Avoiding conversion of grassland to different land uses and 2) changing land management to sequester carbon.

The big picture: The carbon credit generation process is complicated, and not all programs or project developers use the same protocols. Before we dig in, it could be helpful to read up on measuring, monitoring, reporting, and verification (MMRV) of soil carbon and how data flow through agricultural carbon markets. Both articles provide great overviews of how carbon is verified and common ways that carbon programs are organized.

Okay, let’s dig in. Here are a few reputable programs that certify and register carbon credits and use third-party verification to ensure that soil carbon is, in fact, being sequestered. Keep in mind that these programs all vary and serve very different purposes. These programs include:

  • Verra, often considered the gold standard for carbon programs, is the world’s most widely used voluntary greenhouse gas crediting program. Verra is the creator of the Verified Carbon Standard Program that registers individual projects. Verra also houses a registry of carbon credits that shows when and where credits were generated, how they sequestered carbon, and whether those credits have already been purchased.
  • ACR Program, a greenhouse gas removal group that uses ACR methodologies and standards to determine the eligibility of projects for inclusion in the registry. Like Verra, ACR has detailed requirements for the “eligibility, quantification, monitoring, reporting, verification, registration and issuance of project-based GHG emission reductions and removals as carbon credits,” according to the ACR website.
  • BCarbon, a nonprofit carbon registry, will offer input on projects. They help project developers evaluate if a project is well designed and is likely (or not) to result in soil carbon accumulation. BCarbon does not work directly with producers to develop projects; instead, BCarbon works with a third party to verify and certify carbon credits. BCarbon also does not find buyers for those credits.

One thing to note is that these programs are not the same as project developers. Project developers interact directly with producers to implement carbon sequestration projects.

  • Verra, BCarbon, and ACR all serve as big umbrellas that take the results of smaller projects and aggregate them to find buyers for the carbon credits.
  • They also complete the certification, often manage third-party verification, and register the carbon credits to make sure they’re not double-counted.
  • Farmers or landowners do not interact with these programs directly but would more likely be approached by smaller scale project developers.
  • Asking if these project developers use or are associated with the reputable programs above can help farmers avoid projects that are less reputable.

Other programs are good examples of project developers. However, the two below are not accepting new growers but may be helpful resources for understanding work done in the rangeland carbon market space.

  • Terra’s Rangeland Conservation Program. Funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant in 2015, this program seeks to stack environmental credits, including water, species, and/or habitat credits with credits for sequestering greenhouse gases.
  • The Nature Conservancy, a conservation nonprofit, offers funding for projects to sequester rangeland soil carbon, like their Northern Rangelands Trust

A final note on carbon projects and data sharing. For many landowners, the land management practices and the data those practices generate—like sequestering soil carbon, measuring improved water quality or biodiversity—are valuable assets. If you are approached by a carbon project developer, pay close attention to the fine print about how your data is used and who owns it. These programs rely on contracts and knowing exactly what you’re signing up for is key.

Break it down: Management which allows the land to recover during rest periods has the greatest potential to build soil carbon. If you want to build soil carbon in pastures and rangeland, here are four things to consider:

  1. Promote vegetation: There are many styles of grazing, but the key to building a healthy soil beneath livestock is to allow that soil to maintain vegetative cover at all times.
    • Plants hold carbon in their tissues and supply carbon to the soil through their root systems.
    • Plants also help protect the soil against erosion, compaction, and other potential damage by livestock.
  2. Rotate and regenerate: Rotational grazing fits well into regenerative agriculture.
    • When land is allowed to rest between grazing events, the soil and its full suite of living organisms has time to regenerate. And improving the soil environment to foster microbial growth is one of the most effective ways to drive soil carbon sequestration.
    • Time grazing events to coincide with the moment plants are ready to be grazed again. Over time, soil organic matter will build belowground.
    • Under rotational grazing, manure is more evenly distributed on rangeland, adding more nutrients to the soil and further improving microbial growth.
  3. Mimic the wild: Consider the diversity and vigor of plant life on untouched grassland.
    • Manage vegetation (as much as possible) to encourage plant diversity and vigor.
    • Paying close attention to the types and availability of forages on grassland for your cattle can also help improve gain and feed efficiency—another incentive to keep an eye on plant life.
  4. Monitor progress: Building soil carbon takes time.
    • Healthy systems may respond to management changes less rapidly than degraded systems.
    • Measure soil carbon levels over several years, and focus your efforts where livestock occupation has been most intense.

In short, building carbon on rangelands and pasture relies on four key principles. Adopting those principles can help build soil carbon, working with existing management practices.

Photo by Kristen Veum, USDA-ARS.