A new market opportunity pays farmers and ranchers to preserve grasslands and lock carbon into the soil. The sale of the first listed grassland carbon credits will allow the Southern Plains Land Trust to restore and preserve two Colorado ranches that sequester 8,000 metric tons of soil carbon per year.

Environmental Defense Fund facilitated the development and sale of the credits with the help of a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Natural Capital Partners purchased them on behalf of its client Microsoft, which began a carbon neutrality program in 2012.

“This project exemplifies how USDA grants can support innovative conservation approaches,” said Robert Parkhurst, director of Agriculture Data and Metrics at EDF. “It will serve as a model for private working lands around the nation.”

Grassland carbon credits reward landowners for retaining soil carbon and avoiding the emissions associated with converting grasslands into croplands. Grassland projects also provide ecosystem benefits such as habitat for threatened species.

“Agricultural carbon markets are now economically viable for producers as a result of new technology applications, such as satellite imaging, that have dramatically reduced verification costs,” Parkhurst added. “These carbon markets have the potential to incentivize land management decisions that boost climate resilience.”

“We need new approaches, validated and encouraged by globally recognized markets, to reduce global carbon emissions. This innovative project has the potential to reduce emissions while also delivering co-benefits like protection of ecosystems and biodiversity,” said Elizabeth Willmott, environmental sustainability program manager at Microsoft.

“Raven’s Nest and Heartland Ranch contain sweeping native grasslands, seasonal wetlands and 20 miles of prairie streams. These habitats are abundant with songbirds, raptors, diverse mammals and rare plants. Native grazers like bison, elk and pronghorn keep the grasslands healthy,” explained Nicole Rosmarino, executive director of the Southern Plains Land Trust.

The Climate Action Reserve’s Grassland Project Protocol uses biogeochemical modeling and emissions factors to quantify carbon that would be released from the soil if the land were tilled. Offsets are then generated for preserved belowground soil carbon, avoided use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and avoided use of carbon-emitting machinery for crop cultivation.

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