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Verra approves new methodology for biochar offsets

© Shutterstock / WORAWIT SENASRIBiochar for carbon offsetting.

The carbon offset standard setting body and registry Verra has released a new methodology for quantifying emission reductions for biochar. This follows increasing interest and doubts regarding biochar’s durability for carbon sequestration.

Verra releases new international standard for calculating emissions reductions for biochar.

The new methodology can help address doubts on the credibility of biochar’s carbon removal potential and applications.

Widespread adoption of the new standard will help companies better assess biochar project’s carbon removal impacts to include in net zero strategies.

The new methodology is part of Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) Program to broaden the available portfolio of nature-based approaches to carbon removal. 

The methodology was developed through an external consortium with expertise covering the biochar industry, voluntary carbon markets, and methodology development including FORLIANCE, South Pole, Biochar Works and Delaney Forestry Services.

Verra believes that if deployed on a massive global scale, biochar offers a high potential to combat climate change as a near-term large-scale carbon removal technology. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), biochar could have a mitigation potential of at least 1 billion tonnes of carbon annually by 2050.

“This new methodology will catalyse biochar producers’ access to carbon finance and help the budding biochar industry continue globally, enabling biochar to serve as a meaningful carbon sink”, explained Verra’s CEO David Antonioli.

What are the pros and cons of biochar as a carbon offset?

Biochar is carbon-rich solid material that is produced when biomass, like agriculture and forestry waste, is put in a high heat and limited-oxygen environment. The results of this process creates a kind of charcoal from the biomass that acts as a carbon sink to stably store carbon for hundreds of years under certain conditions.

When biochar is introduced into soils, it can help restore degraded soils and improve agricultural productivity and the ability of soils to retain water.

However, soils can only hold a finite amount of carbon and there will be a saturation point for introducing biochar into soils as means of carbon sequestration. Additionally, there is a high risk of reversibility as the carbon stored in biochar can be released back into the atmosphere if soils are disturbed. The impacts of climate change could also speed up the decay of soil, which could further aggravate carbon losses from soil.

Currently, biochar projects have high costs and limited funding, which has limited the scaling up of its applications. There have also been concerns in regard to the monitoring and verification of carbon removal through biochar, which Verra’s new methodology aims to address.

What is included in the new methodology?

The new methodology includes the procedures and factors required to determine the greenhouse gas (GHG) benefits of biochar production and usage, using the IPCC publication on biochar as well as seven other programmes such as the European Biochar Certificate (EBC) as reference materials.

Verra includes a list of eligible feedstocks for biochar production under its methodology, including agricultural waste biomass, forestry and other wood processing, recycling economy, aquaculture plants, animal manure, and high-carbon fly ash.

Since the methodology includes a wide array of biomass materials, including forest residues to animal manures to aquatic plants, the default GHG is considered to be zero, the most conservative assumption. However, a biochar project can provide its own baseline emission factors by applying historical data from a three year period.

In addition to carbon, the methodology also considers fluctuations in nitrogen and methane, and the emissions are defined in units of tonnes of CO2e.

The methodology uses a broad monitoring and accounting framework that captures the GHG impacts across three stages of the biochar value chain: sourcing stage, production stage and application stage. It also includes mechanisms to address permanence of biochar including decay rate and reversal risk from natural and non-natural risks.

To address additionality, the methodology stipulates that the total mass of waste biomass converted to biochar amounts to 5% or loss of the total mass of waste biomass available globally. Projects must pre-determine additionality for different classes of project activities using a positive list, which is represented by the applicability conditions of the methodology and activity penetration.

To improve monitoring of the real world carbon sequestration impacts of biochar, projects must document and prove final application of biochar through sales records, invoices, attestations, and other evidence.

Growing interest in biochar carbon removal needs international standards

Verra’s new methodology is part of a growing body of efforts to increase international standards and understanding of biochar’s potential for carbon removal in order to make projects more credible and increase financing to scale-up its applications.

In August 2022, one of the methodology collaborators South Pole announced it partnered with carbon credit removal platform Carbonfuture to digitise biochar projects on the new Verified Carbon Standard. Using Carbonfuture’s digital tracking capabilities will help to better transmit monitoring data for the carbon removal of biochar projects when coupled with Verra’s new methodology, according to South Pole.

“The latest VCS methodology is changing the momentum around vital carbon removal solutions like biochar. South Pole will apply this new approved methodology to best-in-class projects to help scale up the adoption of biochar globally”, commented South Pole’s senior manager for biochar and agricultural land management Hannes Etter. 

Increasing the application of international standards to assessing the carbon removal potential and monitoring its real world impact will be key to creating more transparency and credibility to related carbon offsets for companies to use as part of their net zero strategies.

“High-quality biochar projects can only be scaled up when they have environmental integrity at their core”, said South Pole’s sustainable standards and methodology manager Chetan Aggarwal.

Aggarwal explained that the new methodology will help provide quality assurance to companies “who are looking to source certified and verified removal credits to support their climate targets”. 

While there may still be doubts on the long-term durability for biochar to act as a stable carbon sink, increasing knowledge and standardisation of its carbon removal potential is a step in the right direction to ensure that this potential is properly accounted for as a carbon removal strategy for net zero goals.

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