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Roadmap to Quantify Soil Organic Carbon on Grasslands

Viresco was pleased to work with a Technical Advisory Group to develop a Roadmap report is to assist developers in the choice of approaches that quantify soil organic carbon (SOC) as a measurable ecosystem good or service (EGS) from Canadian grazing and forage lands (herein called collectively ‘grasslands’). Although grasslands occupy nearly half of the land used for agriculture in Canada, the ability to confidently, reliably, and practically estimate changes in SOC under grazing and forage management practices is a gap in Canadian science. The ultimate objective (beyond the scope of this report) is to be able to build a system that will quantify the impact of grassland management on SOC to enable SOC to be established as a quantifiable and transactable EGS that will thereby encourage increased adoption of beneficial management practices (BMPs) to increase those EGS. The roadmap was developed with significant stakeholder consultation and feedback from two Technical Advisory Group (TAG) meetings and a broader stakeholder workshop including stakeholders from academia, government, private-sector, environmental market experts, and industry groups.

SOC impacts soil quality, functionality, and health and is an important ESG resulting from interactions of ecological processes. Human actions affecting these processes can lead to loss or enhanced sequestration of carbon in the soil. Sequestering carbon in the soil is a natural pathway for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, with added benefits to the broader ecosystem, and the goods and services derived from the ecosystem, at a low cost. Improved land management and agricultural practices can enhance the ability of soils to store carbon and mitigate climate change. It is estimated that conservation of ecosystems (such as grasslands, wetlands, and forests) could provide more than one-third of the emissions reductions needed to stabilize global temperature increases below 2 C by 2030 under the Paris Accord (Griscom et al, 2017). Canada’s temperate grasslands are both vast in scale and comprise high soil carbon density (Janzen et al. 2002). SOC stocks in grassland systems are relatively stable compared to other ecosystems but have the potential to increase with appropriate management making Canada’s grasslands a significant climate change mitigation opportunity.

SOC stocks can be measured directly, but it can take many years to detect a discernable change in SOC stocks due to significant variability in measurements, management, and weather. As an alternative, SOC stocks and their changes can be estimated with process models of SOC – but it is essential that those models are validated with high-quality empirical data.

The preferred approach selected for the roadmap is to utilize process models supported by measurements from a monitoring network of sites across Canada collecting high-quality data, called the Canadian Forage and Grassland Observation Network (CaFGON). The establishment of the new CaFGON is thus the critical and fundamental initial goal on the roadmap towards better, more practical quantification of SOC stocks and their changes. The CaFGON will provide the foundational data of real-world grassland performance that enables project developers and producers to reliably quantify SOC stock change to capitalize on market opportunities from SOC stock increases, and for producers and policymakers to assess how forage and grassland management practices can impact SOC. The CaFGON will collect, manage, and share datasets f observed SOC change paired with information on management practices, soils, climates, forages, and grasslands across Canada to validate and calibrate models. The CaFGON will leverage all the value possible from relevant past studies of grasslands but, importantly, it will also include new ongoing observations to provide the data to evaluate models for current grassland management and conditions.

The steps to establish CaFGON are 1) capacity building through the development of an initial small-scale platform to include a data repository for existing datasets and compilation of existing and potential monitoring sites; 2) design and develop a strategy for a CaFGON; 3) secure funding for CaFGON, and 4) continuing improvement of CaFGON. Additional funding is needed for all steps and the initiative will actively look for philanthropic funders, public and private grants, private sector investments, voluntary contributions, and financial incentives through ecosystem markets. The proposed roadmap provides a feasible and incremental route that effectively leverages resources to accomplish the SOC quantification needed to more effectively focus investment and action to achieve healthier, SOC-enriched agricultural land for Canada.

The full report can be found here.