This article is part of our special report Carbon farming: Europe’s new trend?.
While carbon farming is a priority for the German government, farmers say they are not doing enough to support measures financially. Environmentalists add that some of the promoted practices have limited climate value.
“Carbon farming is a big opportunity for climate policy as well as agriculture,” the German farmers association’s (DBV) secretary-general, Bernhard Krüsken, told EURACTIV Germany.
He added that the agricultural sector was ready to “do its part” in making Germany and Europe climate neutral.
While harnessing natural carbon sinks in agriculture and forestry would be “indispensable” for reaching net-zero, Krüsken said, such climate measures would also have to pay off financially.
“Without adequate remuneration, measures will not be implemented to the extent that is needed,” he explained.
For the German agricultural ministry, promoting carbon sequestration in agriculture and forestry is of “high priority” and a key instrument for reaching the sector’s climate targets, a ministry spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany.
The country’s climate protection law foresees carbon sequestration measures in agriculture and forestry should provide an overall sink of 25 million tonnes of CO2 by 2030. According to the spokesperson, carbon sequestration measures are therefore being promoted through various policy instruments.
‘Speeding up’ national action
Within Germany’s energy and climate fund, €75 million by 2023 is earmarked for humus restoration on arable land, in addition to €21 million from the country’s programme for immediate climate action.
Moreover, the ministry said “significant funds” are budgeted to implement the national Arable Farming Strategy, which outgoing agricultural minister Julia Klöckner presented in August. The strategy aims to “strengthen the contribution of arable farming to climate protection”.
From the DBV’s perspective, not enough is being done. In Germany, “while overambitious objectives have been set for carbon sinks, a framework for certification or remuneration is lacking,” Krüsken said. “Here, we significantly need to speed things up,” he added.
Once a “unitary and scientifically validated framework” for quantifying the amount of sequestrated carbon is agreed upon, this would need to form the basis for different mechanisms of remuneration, Krüsken explained.
“One could imagine remuneration from the energy and climate fund using the means of the CO2 emission trading system, but private remuneration systems could also be envisioned,” he said.
However, environmentalists are critical of integrating carbon farming into emission trading schemes. “There is a risk that, by generating certificates, the sector’s activities for reducing emissions are curbed, because these emissions can then be offset to a large extent,” Johann Rathke from the environmental NGO WWF told EURACTIV Germany.
This can be especially problematic whenever the amount of carbon sequestered by a measure is difficult to measure, he added.
“If you want to remunerate the actual impact of carbon farming measures, you need a large amount of data and measurements,” Xenia Brandt from the small farmers’ association AbL said. “It is extremely difficult to gather this data as accurately as it would be necessary,” she added.
In practice, she explained, financial support is, therefore, most often geared towards remunerating the implementation of specific measures rather than their impact.
Stakeholders’ views also diverge when it comes to the question of which specific farming practices the government should focus its efforts on.
From Krüsken’s perspective, measures must be “as integrated into production as possible, to guarantee food supply while also avoiding CO2 leakage”.
Measures for humus buildup, such as planting intermediate crops, can be integrated into the active cultivation of agricultural land. But from the perspective of environmental campaigners, such practices are not the most effective on the table for carbon sequestration.
“Humus is very fragile and not really suitable for storing carbon over a longer period,” Michael Berger from WWF said. He explained that because emissions can escape again after they were sequestered, it is very difficult to measure how much of a carbon sink humus can actually provide.
Instead, from Berger’s perspective, rewetting moorland is the measure with the “highest potential” for carbon sequestration.
In Germany, large moor areas in the northeast and the south of the country that have been degraded hold the potential for providing significant carbon sinks by being rewet, Rathke explained.
Farm to Fork ‘sufficient’ framework
In October, Germany’s federal and regional agriculture and environment ministers signed a common agreement on moor protection and rewetting, which foresees that 5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent should be sequestered in moorlands until 2030.
However, many farmers see this more cautiously than humus buildup as rewetted areas can only be used for farming to a limited extent. “Farms need long-term, reliable income prospects, as well as options for continuing the agricultural usage of areas,” the DBV’s statement on the ministers’ agreement reads.
According to current budgeting plans, the national agricultural ministry will spend around €330 million on moorland protection between 2021 and 2025. Among other things, these means will be used to promote measures for enabling farmers to still use rewetted areas per local conditions, the spokesperson said.
Apart from national measures, Germany also supports carbon farming through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The country’s catalogue of so-called “eco schemes” – programmes for remunerating sustainable agricultural practices within the CAP – includes support for crop diversification and the cultivation of leguminous plants set to boost the soil’s carbon storage capacity, the ministry explained.
The spokesperson also added that Germany’s agriculture ministry judges the EU’s food flagship policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy, as providing “a suitable framework for carbon farming to become a new business model in agriculture”.
From the DBV’s perspective, the bloc’s goals for carbon sequestration in agriculture are too ambitious, Krüsken said. “However, farmers have high expectations for the carbon removal strategy set to be presented by the Commission in December,” he added.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]