Long awaited clarity for carbon accounting tools

After a year-long investigation, Defra’s report: ‘Harmonisation of Carbon Accounting Tools for Agriculture’ is providing much-needed guidance on appropriate standards for carbon reporting.

Direct Driller spoke to Dr Emily Pope from Trinity AgTech to find out what this means for farmers.

A new era for carbon accounting: From the ‘Wild West’ to the ‘Collective Era’

Emily explains that before Defra’s report, the landscape for carbon accounting was unregulated with no clear direction or guidelines.

“Many people called this the ‘Wild West’, however, that era and its financial and environmental futility is shifting to a new era.

“This new ‘Collective Era’ is defined by a movement towards global standards, protocols, rigour, and well executed methods as well as continuous innovation, trust, credibility and collaborative learning.

“All these parameters will help to deliver robust supply chains, environmental progress, and prosperous rural communities,” says Emily.

Detailing the positive implications of this for arable farmers, Emily adds: “We can expect to see farmers and the whole supply chain starting to earn fair and full recognition and reward for trustworthy and credible decision-making that delivers efficient environmental progress in tandem with food production.”

Why assess a farm’s carbon footprint

Emily stresses the inevitability of credible and trusted carbon footprint assessments for all farms, not least because of the increasing attention to the laws and regulations against greenwashing and simple box-ticking. She is also keen to highlight the wider opportunities associated with robust and reliable natural capital navigation.

“The push of carbon footprinting from the supply chain is unavoidable; we’re seeing it increasingly in the livestock sector and other sectors will follow.

“I’m therefore urging farmers keen on better economic and environmental outcomes to remain firmly in the driving seat; this means using reliable software to ensure they have the most accurate data possible, on not only the carbon they emit but also the carbon they sequester,” says Emily.

She explains that there is a big difference in emissions and sequestration.

“All farms have inputs, it’s unavoidable, but they also have trees, hedges, and other natural assets on the farm.

“Often, these environmentally beneficial features are overlooked in carbon accounting.

“This oversight can unfairly portray farms as having a higher environmental impact by focusing solely on inputs and emissions.

“However, natural assets on farms play a crucial role in offsetting the farm’s carbon footprint by absorbing carbon dioxide, essentially mitigating some of the emissions from arable operations,” says Emily.

She adds that recognising and accounting for the positive environmental contributions of maintaining natural habitats on farms is essential.

“This allows farmers to demonstrate the comprehensive environmental stewardship of their operations, challenging the narrow focus on emissions and highlighting their efforts in promoting sustainability.”

If farmers are asked to undertake a carbon assessment, Emily advises that the carbon accounting tool should be critically assessed. “Outdated ‘first generation’ calculators are still being recommend by some businesses, including a few consultants, but these tools produce falsely simplified results that undervalue natural capital assets.”

However, Emily adds that Trinity AgTech’s Sandy is the only tool which complies with the most up-to-date recommendations, as per Defra’s report, and also supports on-farm decision making helping to drive efficiency savings.

“Measuring and benchmarking a farm’s carbon footprint is an important part of decision-making and its value shouldn’t be underestimated.

“By assessing a farm’s carbon footprint on a field-by-field basis, farmers can start to understand what’s driving the footprint and make management changes to lessen it.”

There is evidence that lower carbon footprints are associated with higher efficiencies, which are linked to cost savings.

“In the UK, emissions from arable production are generally between 1 and 4 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare,” says Emily.

She adds that the emissions intensity per tonne of crop produced can vary widely.

For example, emissions from high yielding crops, such as forage crops, can be less than 100 kg of CO2 equivalent per tonne of crop. Whereas emissions from crops with lower yields, such oilseed rape, can be more than 700 kg of CO2 equivalent per tonne.

Without undertaking an assessment, Emily notes that many businesses would be unaware of their output.

Worse still, they could be using a tool which is not fit for purpose, which could potentially be giving unreliable data and misguiding decision making.

Public and private investment around natural capital is also growing, but farmers should consider these opportunities with diligence.

“Farmers could do enormously well for themselves and the supply chain to properly understand the extent and the value of all of their natural capital assets, from carbon through to biodiversity, and be confident in the credibility of their assessments before embarking on any arrangements.

“This is the key to recognising the true value of natural capital using reliable, comprehensive and accurate software.”

Choosing carbon accounting software

Emily explains the landscape of carbon assessment software is complex, but fortunately Defra’s report has finally offered clear guidance and direction.

“Given that farm-level carbon accounting is currently completely unregulated, there is significant divergence in calculation methodology and the resulting information.

“This has reduced trust, stalled environmental efforts, and prevented proper recognition and reward.”

Defra’s report started by reviewing 81 global carbon calculators, analysing in detail the six most relevant and suitable for UK farming.

Reading the report we clearly see that only one tool stood out as being uniquely fit for purpose, Emily explains it was Trinity AgTech’s Sandy.

“This was in part, but not solely, due to Sandy being the only tool to align with the recognised standards recommended within Defra’s report, including ISO 14064:2, ISO 14067 and the draft GHG Protocol Land Sector and Removals guidance, supporting the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi),” she says. 

Sandy – a new category of carbon accounting software

Having recognised the extreme pitfalls of ‘first generation’ carbon calculators that are often used to assess farm-level carbon, Emily explains that Trinity AgTech has pioneered food and farming’s ‘Smart Precision Navigation’ category of software.

“Sandy is in a complete league of its own and is uniquely positioned for the new ‘Collective Era,” she says.

“This is because the tool is optimised and built from the ground up to focus on continuously delivering increasing value by leveraging cutting-edge proven insights and methods in science, technology, assessment standards, and farming.

“It uniquely provides farmers and key sector stakeholders access to distinctive and relevant science methods, services and platforms that are evidenced, credible and trusted, adding value throughout the supply chain.”

She highlights that this development represents a significant leap forward in agricultural technology.

“By focusing on smart precision, continuous innovation, and comprehensively addressing the complexities of modern agriculture, we’re not just keeping pace with the times and the assessment protocols – we are delivering a new standard for the future.”

Questions to ask before choosing carbon accounting software

If farmers are asked to use a specific carbon accounting tool, Emily encourages them to ask the following questions to ensure the enterprise is not being penalised and disadvantaged:

  • Does it align with the standards recommended within Defra’s report, these are ISO standards 14064:2 and 14067 and the draft GHG Protocol Land Sector and Removals guidance which is supportive of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi)? This is a must to produce trusted and reliable data.
  • What data is required and how does the tool handle assumptions? This effects the accuracy of the output and the ability to identify specific areas for emissions reductions.
  • Does the tool provide guidance and support for understanding and interpreting results? Given the complexity of carbon accounting, the tool must offer clear support to enable farmers to make informed decisions about reducing emissions and enhancing carbon sequestration on farm.
  • Handling of low carbon fertilisers: the Defra report discusses the complexity of emission factors and how they vary between calculators, particularly with manufactured fertiliser and organic manures.
  • Does the tool fully represent the farm’s activities: a tool should comprehensively represent all farm activities, including emissions and sequestration.
  • Does it allow for carbon sequestration on the farm? For example, all the great natural habitats and features which are absorbing carbon such as trees, hedgerows and permanent pasture.
  • Does it have the capability to account for natural capital assets beyond carbon, such as biodiversity, soil health and water quality? These assets also hold significant value.
  • Does it offer scenario planning functionality? This can help plan decision making and reduces the risk of management changes.

Sandy demonstrations available this summer

Trinity will be offering Sandy demonstrations at several shows and events this summer.

  • Scottish Land & Estates Annual Conference 2024, Tuesday 21 May
  • Green Farm Collective Regenerative Agriculture Conference 2024, Wednesday 22 May
  • The Suffolk Show, 29 & 30 May 2024
  • Groundswell, 26 & 27 June 2024

Farmer case study: Michael Kavanagh, Church Farm

First-generation Shropshire farmer and founder of the Green Farm Collective, Michael Kavanagh, explains how he set out to create a sustainable and profitable business using regenerative farming principles when he began farming at Church Farm eight years ago.

“After starting out using a strip-till system, I became interested in soil health which led me to consider how I could farm sustainably without using off-the-shelf chemicals.

“I realised that there was another way to farm as opposed to the conventional practices I’d always followed,” says Michael.

The farm now follows a zero-till system; insecticides and plant growth regulators are no longer being used and in the last two years only one fungicide has been used across the entire farm.

However, he notes that if the ground isn’t ready for no-till then the results will be affected.

“For example, on a large area of new land we’ve stepped back to strip till because the land is simply not ready for a zero till system.

“Implementing a zero till system wherever possible is a big change. By not moving the soil, we’re keeping all the carbon locked in, with no impact on yields.

“Church Farm is also really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with on-farm changes including zero use of P & K bagged fertiliser,” says Michael.

“We’ve also minimised our fuel usage as a result of zero till. During drilling, we’ve been using around five litres of fuel per hectare which is a miniscule amount for on-farm work.

“Nitrogen use efficiency has been hugely improved through the work we’ve been doing on farm.

“Nitrogen is one of the biggest killers on carbon calculations, so being able to improve the efficiency of this has been a great achievement.

“We’ve also extended our rotation and included cover crops which has demonstrated huge benefits.”

Michael explains that as part of the Green Farm Collective, he was looking for a partner to be able to quantify the work they were doing to improve their sustainability.

“We knew we were doing the right things on-farm, in terms of carbon and biodiversity, but wanted to be able to quantify it.

“We explored various options and Trinity AgTech had the best understanding of the practices we’d adopted and the most robust science and analytics in Sandy.

“The agriculture sector is in pioneering times at the moment and there’s going to be a lot of change in the coming years, so it was important to find a navigator we could rely on and trust.”

Key recommendations from Defra’s Harmonisation of Carbon Accounting Tools for Agriculture report

Defra’s recommendations for supporting the harmonisation of farm-level carbon accounting are as follows:

1. Industry and HMG to clearly define what a farm-level assessment is, how it is going to be used, and what parts of a farm business should and should not be included.

2. Calculators to align with the requirements of the latest standards and guidance – currently GHG Protocol standards (including the upcoming Land Sector and Removals guidance), ISO 14064 and ISO 14067. Industry and HMG to provide guidelines to support a standardized way of applying these in an agricultural context.

3. Calculator providers to regularly review and update calculators to account for changes in scientific knowledge, carbon accounting methodologies and new emission factors.

4. Calculators to comply with the latest IPCC guidance (currently IPCC 2019) and use those calculations and emission factors as defaults where Tier I approaches are used. Where appropriate, calculators to use Tier II and Tier III calculations where robust emission factors and methodologies are available, such as emission factors created for the UK GHG Inventory.

5. Calculators to use emission factors from an agreed set of robust databases for embedded emissions in fertilisers, feeds and fuels. Industry to support the development of appropriate emission factors for embedded emissions in purchased livestock.

6. Calculators to present outputs in compliance with the latest standards. Industry and HMG to define consistent disaggregated output categories for use by all calculators to facilitate understanding of emission sources.

7. Calculator providers to build user confidence through transparency of approach and third-party verification of the alignment of calculators to minimum standards