Chevrolet just helped bring grasslands into the carbon market

Why it matters.


America’s duck factory is in trouble. More than half of North America’s waterfowl hatch in the prairie potholes region, named for the extensive wetlands formed in the depressions glaciers left behind as they receded from what are now the Dakotas, Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. But farmers are draining the potholes and tilling what little native prairie remains to plant more corn and soybeans. That’s not just bad news for ducks, it’s bad news for the climate, because breaking up grassland soils releases carbon dioxide.

In response, a waterfowl conservation group figured out a new way to help ranchers save their grasses: Paying them to grow carbon instead of corn. Ducks Unlimited and their partners have been working for years on a new kind of carbon credit created by calculating the greenhouse gasses stored in grasslands that would otherwise be tilled. Last week, Chevrolet became its first buyer, purchasing 40,000 tons of those carbon credits, which came from 11,000 acres and 29 landowners in North Dakota. It's part of the company’s $40 million push to offset emissions from driving the new cars and trucks they put on the road in a single year. Even if the credit purchase, which is roughly equivalent to taking 5,000 cars off the road for a year, is modest compared to the scale of the problem, it's still significant.

The prairie pothole region pulls in carbon and pumps out ducks, and increasingly crops. Between 1997 to 2009 the region lost an average of 6,200 acres of wetlands each year. Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
First, it’s another step toward incentivizing private landowners to conserve their land because it does stuff that’s beneficial to society, like storing carbon. “There’s been a lot of conversation about ecosystem markets for a long time, and the challenge has been to make the promise of ecosystem service markets a reality,” says Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for natural resources and the environment. “One of the challenges is that we’re operating in an environment where we haven’t had clear policy on the federal level that’s created a demand for these opportunities."

But the USDA is moving ahead anyway. That's because the bigger barrier, says Bonnie, has been demonstrating that ecosystem markets can work for everyone involved. That’s why they’ve funded projects to figure out how to market carbon sequestered in natural and agricultural systems, and why they granted Ducks Unlimited $161,000 to come up with a way to create new revenue for ranchers that keep grasslands intact rather than cultivating their land  

But voluntary carbon markets alone won’t adequately slow greenhouse gas emissions, says Peter Weisberg, an analyst for the Climate Trust, the carbon credit marketing non-profit that helped Ducks Unlimited sell credits to Chevy. Even so, work done now to bolster voluntary markets will mean there are more templates for how to do things as mandatory markets grow, and people won't be starting from scratch. For example, the group that oversees California’s mandatory market is looking at developing a grassland credit. Weisberg hopes they will build on the methodology they developed with Ducks Unlimited.

While Chevrolet’s purchase is good public relations, Weisberg thinks there’s more to it than that. It’s an indicator that corporations are preparing for eventual mandatory emissions reductions. Other giants like Disney, Microsoft and Shell have already imposed internal emissions caps.

If larger scale mandatory cap and trade does happen, it’s important to figure out how to quantify the greenhouse gas stored in ecosystems now, so we get it right for the big leagues. There’s still a great deal of scientific uncertainty about how ecosystems release and store greenhouse gases over time. And that’s not just an academic problem. For instance, what if you sell an ecosystem-based carbon credit that lasts for 50 years, but the ecosystem starts emitting greenhouse gasses during that time? Then the emissions weren’t really offset.

Bottom line: This stuff is hard and groups willing to develop new tools for the carbon market are taking a financial risk. Ducks Unlimited and their partners are working on refining their methods for the grassland credits right now, though they’ve already had more interest. "We have optimism that it’s going to improve from here on out and these types of incentives are going to continue," says Billy Gascoigne, an economist with Ducks Unlimited. “These are emerging markets and they need further attention and investment.”

 Sarah Jane Keller is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Bozeman, Montana and tweets @sjanekeller.

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