Thanks to a new pilot project, Almond growers could soon be selling carbon credits.
The Almond Board of California recently teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund and other partners to carry out a new USDA-funded project designed to give almond growers greater access to greenhouse gas markets like those under California’s cap-and-trade program.
The $960,000 project is part of a $20.5 million allocation from the USDA Conservation Innovation Grant Program to help farmers and ranchers implement practices that will make their operations more resilient to climate change.
This will be the first large-scale pilot project generating greenhouse gas credits from nutrient management practices among almond growers. The ultimate goal is for growers to enter the cap-and-trade market and sell carbon credits to companies and industries seeking to meet their emission targets.
Gabriele Ludwig, director of sustainability and environmental affairs for the Almond Board of California, says the project will look at nitrogen management to help limit nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions – something the Almond Board has been vested in for some time.
“Essentially, we have models in place to calculate the carbon emissions and nitrogen emissions of different scenarios,” Ludwig says.
The goal now is to come up with practices that growers can voluntarily implement to minimize N2O emissions to reduce greenhouse gases, and to find out if these practices can be documented in a way to be useable in the carbon markets.
“So that’s really the gist of what this project is trying to do – build on the research we’ve already funded related to nitrogen management and see if we can come up with protocols that reduce N2O emissions in ways that work for growers, and in ways that work for those who need to verify that a carbon reduction is a real carbon reduction,” Ludwig says.
In terms of carbon reduction, there are a number of areas where Ludwig says the almond industry can contribute. One is to emulate the model of no-till farming – letting any biomass in the orchard build up in the soil to increase organic matter. “So essentially you’re storing some carbon in the soil,” Ludwig explains. “Certainly in California, you have growers who chip their prunings every year, and that goes into the soil and gradually breaks down, so is the increase in organic matter enough to claim a carbon credit if you want to?”
The same goes for tree removal. One option is to grind trees up and put them back in the ground, where they will gradually break down and slow the emission of CO2.
Although growers don’t typically accrue carbon credits for creating biomass byproducts, almond shells can go to bioenergy facilities to generate electricity and offset carbon emissions, as well. “The way the rules are written, though, that bioenergy credit tends to go to the energy companies who are using renewable fuel and does not accrue directly to growers,” Ludwig says.
But it’s still an example of the industry making a difference, and with agriculture often getting a bad rap for its environmental impact, it’s worth noting. “Growing trees is a good thing, and I think that’s something that would be nice if we could get more acknowledgement for,” Ludwig adds.
The pilot project will hopefully cast agriculture – particularly almonds – in a more positive environmental light. Ludwig says the first year of the project will be spent reviewing current data and drafting protocols. Eventually, researchers will work with growers to try the protocols out in the field to determine their impact and their ability to be verified.
Unfortunately, as of now, there is not a lot of money to be made for almond growers selling carbon credits. “There’s actually quite a bit of expense to do all the verification,” Ludwig says, adding that part of the pilot project will focus on finding ways to more efficiently verify the carbon offsets.
Ultimately, though, it’s about the role agriculture can play in slowing climate change. And, there could be opportunities for it to become more lucrative in the future. “Basically you have Europe with cap-and-trade and California with cap-and-trade, but everybody else is voluntary markets, so those carbon offsets haven’t gotten very valuable yet,” Ludwig explains. “Certainly in California, as time goes on and every year the amount of CO2 emissions permitted for the capped industries becomes less and less, then offsets or other ways of reaching those goals can become more valuable.”
In the meantime, those involved with the pilot project will be working hard to improve the system. “In the longer run, we hope that there will be some money to be had,” Ludwig says. “But at the end of the day, it’s also about finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint of almonds.”