Study Reveals Deep Faults in Carbon Credits; Olive Trees May Present a Solution

While some forest preservation projects generate millions more carbon credits than they should, traditional olive growers are missing out on a potential revenue stream.
Bieszczady National Park, Carpathians, Poland
By Daniel Dawson
Sep. 26, 2023 14:03 UTC

An inter­na­tional team of sci­en­tists and econ­o­mists from Cambridge University and VU Amsterdam have found that mil­lions of car­bon cred­its are gen­er­ated annu­ally due to the over­es­ti­ma­tion of for­est preser­va­tion.

Better inte­gra­tion of olive grow­ers of all types into global car­bon mar­kets could be a cred­i­ble alter­na­tive to the evi­dent flaws of some for­est preser­va­tion projects.

The researchers looked at 18 projects – known as REDD and REDD+ projects – over­seen by the United Nations to slow defor­esta­tion in Africa, Asia and South America. They deter­mined that the 18 off­set­ting projects pro­duced mil­lions of car­bon cred­its based on crude cal­cu­la­tions that inflated their con­ser­va­tion impact.”

The research found that only 6 per­cent of 89 mil­lion cred­its cre­ated by the off­set scheme were linked with addi­tional car­bon reduc­tions from for­est preser­va­tion. More than two-thirds of the cred­its came from projects that either did not or only slightly reduced defor­esta­tion.

See Also:Pollution Party Over as Europe Agrees to More Strict Emissions Trading System

Carbon cred­its come in three forms and can be sold by project devel­op­ers to bro­kers or end con­sumers seek­ing to off­set their car­bon emis­sions.

There are 30 com­pli­ance car­bon mar­kets glob­ally cov­er­ing about one-fifth of all green­house gas emis­sions, trad­ing $2.8 bil­lion (€2.62 bil­lion) of car­bon cred­its. Separately, vol­un­tary car­bon mar­kets exist for com­pa­nies and indi­vid­u­als seek­ing to off­set their car­bon emis­sions out­side of com­pli­ance car­bon mar­kets.

According to data from Ember, a cli­mate and energy think tank, car­bon cred­its are cur­rently priced at slightly more than €83 per ton in the European Union. In California, car­bon prices reached a record-high $37.49 (€35.05) per ton in July.

The 18 off­set­ting projects were issu­ing avoided emis­sions cred­its pro­duced by pre­serv­ing the rain­for­est and not cut­ting it down, which the researchers found were prone to over­es­ti­ma­tion.

Another type of car­bon credit comes from remov­ing emis­sions through car­bon cap­ture or plant­ing trees. While some olive farm­ers are already tak­ing advan­tage of car­bon mar­kets to earn extra rev­enue, there is plenty of room for more grow­ers to take advan­tage of olive trees’ car­bon cap­ture poten­tial.

Estimates for how much car­bon diox­ide is sequestered by olive trees vary sig­nif­i­cantly, rang­ing from 2.7 kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide per kilo­gram of olive oil pro­duced in super-high-den­sity olive groves to 11 in tra­di­tional rain­fed olive groves.

Globally, there are about 11.5 mil­lion hectares of olive groves, of which approx­i­mately 8 mil­lion are planted tra­di­tion­ally.

Efforts in Europe are under­way to help olive grow­ers of all sizes ben­e­fit from the abil­ity of their trees to extract car­bon diox­ide from the atmos­phere.

For exam­ple, the Green Economy and CO2 project ver­i­fied that par­tic­i­pat­ing grow­ers sequestered three tons of car­bon per hectare of olive groves on aver­age.

Project orga­niz­ers esti­mate that the 160 farm­ers in Italy and Croatia sequestered 6,500 tons of car­bon diox­ide over three years, with a value of €539,500 in today’s mar­ket.

Along with pub­licly-funded ini­tia­tives, var­i­ous pri­vate sec­tor actors are also work­ing to con­nect olive farm­ers with com­pa­nies seek­ing manda­tory vol­un­tary car­bon cred­its.

In Italy, Alberami cal­cu­lates how many tons of car­bon diox­ide small-scale olive farm­ers are seques­ter­ing and con­nects them with buy­ers.

When grown with con­ven­tional farm­ing, tra­di­tional olive tree place­ment of a max­i­mum six per six meters can pro­duce up to 10 or 12 car­bon cred­its,” co-founder Francesco Musardo told Olive Oil Times in a 2022 inter­view.

Olive grow­ers who fol­low organic and regen­er­a­tive farm­ing best prac­tices, includ­ing plant­ing cover crops between rows of olive trees and prac­tic­ing no-till agri­cul­ture, can sequester even more car­bon diox­ide.

The same tree grown organ­i­cally will absorb more than two or three times that quan­tity,” Musardo said. This might give new finan­cial incen­tives to go organic to many grow­ers.”

Based on these cal­cu­la­tions, organic olive grow­ers could earn nearly €3,000 per tree each year (at cur­rent car­bon prices).

According to the Cambridge University and VU Amsterdam study, the 18 for­est preser­va­tion and refor­esta­tion projects cov­ered nearly 7 mil­lion hectares.

If the equiv­a­lent land were planted with tra­di­tional olive groves, they could sequester about 21 mil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide annu­ally, val­ued at €1.74 bil­lion worth of car­bon cred­its.

Verifying car­bon cred­its for removed emis­sions is eas­ier to do than it is for avoided emis­sions. As a result, bet­ter inte­gra­tion of olive grow­ers of all types into global car­bon mar­kets could be a cred­i­ble alter­na­tive to the evi­dent flaws of some for­est preser­va­tion projects.

Olive grow­ers would enjoy an addi­tional rev­enue stream and be encour­aged to fol­low more sus­tain­able prac­tices. At the same time, emit­ters could be assured their car­bon cred­its make a dif­fer­ence.


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