Watch our step on carbon footprints…

Carbon – until a few years ago the only time you heard the word spoken was when it ignited a set of spark plugs.

Or, for the aging cohort of journalists who learned to type on old Adler clackety-clack sit-up-and-beg typewriters, carbon paper was the only way to ensure you had a copy of your words. precious before they fall into their hands. of an unsympathetic sub-editor.

Fast forward to today and you can’t escape the term carbon – with endless discussions about how to mitigate its emissions, sequester it, verify it and even trade the blessed things.

And last week the national effort to encourage American farmers to get carbon under control kicked off when the first phase of the Scottish Government’s Path 1 of the new Sustainable Farming Policy opened.

Now, if I remember my chemistry lessons, although it’s far from the most abundant element on Earth, it accounts for more compounds than all the others put together – and by a happy coincidence, it’s l one of the elements common to all forms of life.

In truth, when the term carbon is used, rather than referring to its elemental forms – such as diamond, graphite, coal and coke – it tends to be used as shorthand for a key molecule, carbon dioxide. of carbon, the combination of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen.

According to the rules of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which focus on the greenhouse gas potential of different chemicals, CO2 is taken as the standard unit of warming effect, other gases receiving a “CO2 equivalent” value.

And while many in other industry sectors – and increasingly in the retail sector – have quickly realized the marketing benefits of being able to claim they are carbon neutral or negative. This exercise asks farmers to check their businesses and assess how much they free up and how much they tie up during their operations.

For most other sectors of industry, this could be a fairly simple math – with transportation, electricity and other energy sources being consumed in the production, packaging and delivery of their products. manufactured being totaled to give a carbon footprint.

Farming, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated.

Because agriculture harnesses natural processes – which tend to be messier and harder to quantify or predict with precision. And, along with forestry, agriculture has the unique ability to actually absorb CO2 and reduce the amount that contributes to the global warming potential of the atmosphere.

Every blade of grass, every head of corn, every grain of barley has the ability to retain CO2 through the main driving force of life on Earth: photosynthesis. And that’s what agriculture is for…harvesting solar energy from the sun and turning it into food for the human population.

But, and this is a very big but, while the accepted international protocol for calculating emissions is fairly well understood and standardized, the one for assigning credits for sequestration is less well developed.

While the convention took the decision to recognize the amounts of CO2 absorbed by forestry and woodlands as being sequestered there (despite the fact that much of it is returned to the atmosphere through combustion in woodchip boilers wood and others), which is fixed by cereals and others and which are consumed fairly quickly do not benefit from the same recognition.

So despite the fact that each acre of barley actually locks up several tons of CO2, no credit is given for it due to the fact that it will soon be consumed.

The problem is further complicated by the use of fertilizers to increase productivity, the addition of livestock to pasture to turn grass that is indigestible by humans into easily digestible animal protein – and this practice is further complicated by emissions of methane by the insects that inhabit the stomachs of the ruminants that we use to do this.

So far, it has proven difficult to calculate the amount of CO2 sequestered in grasslands, as well as that added to soils through the uptake of crop residues – and although the science is growing, it has yet to be perfected. .

Currently, the different processes used in the multitude of carbon calculators (or perhaps more accurately ‘off-the-shelf calculators’) to undertake an audit can yield wildly varying results for individual farms.

So while the Scottish Government’s new carbon audit scheme may mark a starting point for benchmarking industry performance, until the science is better understood, more fairly recognized and fully integrated into a the only standardized calculator, it should be considered a work in progress rather than a final result.

On that front I liked the idea floated in the recent NFU Scotland webinar on carbon credits and carbon trading which argued that grass protein, via our grazing cattle, is then sequestered in the body human for several decades before finally being released.

And, thinking about it, I strongly suspect that the carbon fixed by our malting barley that is used in the production of some of these fancy malt whiskeys aged for 10, 15 or even 20 years would be tied up for as long as a large portion wood that is produced in the country’s forests.

However, probably the most important message to emerge from this well-attended webinar was a warning to farmers not to be too keen on selling family money as carbon credits for a quick buck – and to make sure that if you were considering doing so, you were fully aware of all the risks you were taking in doing so.

While it has been argued that the Scottish government – and those around the world – will not be able to meet climate change targets without involving the agricultural sector, industry has been warned that it must s Engage further in emerging science, regulations and commerce. landscape surrounding the growing carbon monitoring and trading markets – in other words, to gain a little more knowledge before dealing with the big guys.

Speaking at the webinar, Union President Martin Kennedy stressed that the UK Government’s current consultation on the issue was of paramount importance, saying: “The three key questions we need to answer in the consultation are : do we need a standardized carbon calculator to validate emissions? and sequestration of greenhouse gases; should carbon trading be available to provide income to farms and smallholdings; and should the carbon trading market be regulated? »

But he admitted that while the subject was of great importance not only in future policy decisions, but also in the context of commercial contracts, many actors in the agricultural sector had not yet taken cognizance of the issue – despite the recent market distortions caused by external speculation in the market. that had driven the price of tree-plantable land beyond the pockets of farmers

Kennedy and the union’s climate change specialist, Kate Hopper, stressed that it was crucial for the industry – and individual companies – to balance their own credits first before considering selling them to others. industries looking to get out of trouble.

Producers were warned that if they decided to sell credits, they had to be careful – and take into account that this would be a long-term commitment that could place considerable constraints on how a business could work in the future – and that brought a whole new set of risks to manage, such as the effects of weather events like last year’s Storm Awen which destroyed thousands of acres of forest and the recent increase in forest fires.

However, it was also pointed out that other parts of the supply chain should have a stake in agriculture reducing its carbon footprint – rather than simply diverting the efforts that farmers had made to reduce emissions and claim consumer credit.

And Hopper suggested that in many cases the best way forward would be for producers to work in partnership with others in that chain and secure additional investment for the use of technologies that would reduce emissions – an interesting idea and one that could end up helping all the links in the chain.

While the webinar also saw repeated calls for some sort of consistency between the many carbon calculation tools currently available – which could draw widely varying conclusions from the same data set – those who listened heard that the industry should be wary of binding itself completely. as science was continually developing:

“And we’ve seen it in the speed at which organizations are using the latest scientific advances – and while government has been slow to change and develop its ideas, the commercial sector has moved much faster,” Hopper said. .

“Fundamentally, we need both standardization and innovation to ensure that the way we measure carbon emissions and sequestration reflects the latest scientific advances.”

But with the whole field being so complicated and constantly changing, it was also suggested that some form of training and education should be made available to farmers to help us understand some of the underlying complexities. at the question.

So maybe we need to take a few small steps before we start running when it comes to trading on our carbon footprints.