The problem is, it’s unclear if “Carbon Offsets” even work
This story was originally published by Grist and is republished here as part of an ongoing collaboration.
Kelly Garrett runs his 7,000-acre farm in western Iowa with the same attitude he brings to a game of golf. He wants a hole in one every time — in other words, perfection.
He is the seventh generation of his family to live and work on the rolling hills of Garrett Land and Cattle in Arion, Iowa, tending to lush fields of corn and soybean crops and raising cattle for beef. In no-frills jeans and work boots, Garrett looks like a man who has spent his life farming. The eyes under his bald head have wrinkles nestled into their corners, hinting at decades of squinting in the sun.
Garrett harbors a seemingly unquenchable urge for progress on the farm that he runs with his father. If his soil could be healthier, his crop yield higher, his profit margins wider, he makes it happen. It’s this need to be at the cutting edge of agriculture that drove him to co-found XtremeAg.farm, a website where Garrett and six other farmers review agricultural tools and practices. Partner companies pay them to screen products and report to their readers whether they’re worth the effort and money or just agricultural snake oil.
It was through this side gig that Garrett first seriously considered carbon capture. He figured he could tweak his agricultural techniques to suck planet-warming carbon out of the atmosphere and get paid by corporations looking to “offset” their carbon emissions. Big businesses often find it cheaper to pay somebody like Garrett to trap more carbon than it is for them to change their ways.
It turned out Garrett didn’t need to do much to get paid. Nori, the carbon-market broker Garrett began working with last year, allows farmers to make money for carbon-sequestering practices, like avoiding the plow, they started anytime after 2010. That’s good news for Garrett, who hasn’t plowed or otherwise tilled his fields since 2012. He had already sowed many of his fields with cover crops — not for harvest but to improve soil health and capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis — and he expanded his use of them.
Since signing up with Nori, Garrett has raked in nearly $150,000 for capturing carbon in his soil, though it’s hard to know exactly how much carbon Garrett is actually storing. And because of that, it’s impossible to know if he’s storing more carbon than he would have put into his fields if he hadn’t gotten paid. That’s a problem for the carbon offset market (which is somewhere around a billion dollars according to some reports), which is built on the idea that money will persuade someone, somewhere, to remove additional carbon dioxide from the air.