Carbon Coffee

Implementing and Testing a Credible Carbon Monitoring Methodology on Coffee Farms

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humankind, contributing to biodiversity loss, desertification, forced human migrations, water shortages, weather-related disasters and poverty. Like so many other people, coffee farmers are feeling the effects of a changing climate, but they can also play an important role in mitigating these changes.

To help farmers participate in efforts that alleviate climate change, the Rainforest Alliance collaborated with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group; ECOM Agroindustrial Corp., the third-largest coffee trading company in the world; and coffee farmers in Mexico and Nicaragua to develop a credible methodology for measuring and verifying carbon stored on coffee farms.

Financed by the IFC's Innovation Fund, an initiative to promote innovative concepts that could lead to future IFC products or services, the two-year project, which concluded in 2009, worked to...

  • help combat climate change by promoting reforestation,
  • allow coffee growers to earn additional income by planting and growing trees on their farms and selling the carbon absorbed by those trees,
  • select a methodology that can be used in other regions and sectors, and
  • avoid the high transaction costs normally associated with carbon-offset projects.

The Benefits of Reforesting Coffeelands

Climate scientists regard reforestation, especially in the tropics, as one of the most practical and least expensive ways to ameliorate climate change. By planting trees to shade their coffee plants, farmers can draw carbon dioxide (C02) -- the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change -- from the atmosphere and store it in trees.

Besides helping to slow the effects of climate change, reforestation contributes to biodiversity conservation by providing critical wildlife habitat, helps coffee farmers improve the quality of their beans, supplies firewood, construction materials, fruit and other forest goods, and protects the watersheds that provide drinking water.

The carbon credit market, currently valued at $120 billion, continues to expand. As companies seek to offset their emissions voluntarily and compensate for those emissions they cannot eliminate, carbon conservation -- through activities like reforestation -- has the potential to yield significant economic benefits for farmers who can generate credits to sell on the carbon market.

Some farmers are already receiving modest payments for carbon offsets, watershed protection and other "environmental services." The roadblock to giving more farmers access to the lucrative carbon market is the cost of the vital studies and monitoring that are required by carbon credit buyers. Without such guarantees, how can investors know that the trees were really planted and that they continue to grow?

Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms already undergo rigorous annual audits, which verify their compliance with the stringent criteria for social, environmental and economic sustainability set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), a consortium of NGOs. If auditors could measure the carbon sequestered by trees planted to earn carbon credits at the same time that these farms are being audited to the SAN standards, the carbon monitoring costs would be low and the credibility of the results would be high.

The SAN standards already require and monitor reforestation, but trees planted for carbon reforestation projects must be additional to those already existing to help farms meet the SAN standards. As a result of this project, eligible groups of farms, coffee traders and associations, and other project developers now have guidance on how to implement a widely regarded -- but highly technical -- methodology for small-scale agroforestry activities that will allow them to participate in the global carbon market.

Methods for Monitoring Carbon

The Rainforest Alliance envisions that the carbon credits resulting from the implementation of reforestation projects -- guided by the process outlined here -- will be sold in two ways: via an "aggregation model," where a number of farmers can consolidate their carbon credits to sell to a buyer, and via a "coffee plus carbon model," where individuals or small groups of farmers can earn additional income by selling carbon credits through the conventional coffee value chain.

In 2009, the Rainforest Alliance tested the methodology in Mexico and Nicaragua to ensure that it was suitable for reforestation carbon projects on Central American farms. However, with additional information, the methodology can be applied using the tools developed by the Rainforest Alliance in all of the world's coffee and cocoa producing regions. The coffee industry and consumers support the concept, and the combination of carbon-offset initiatives with existing conservation efforts offers clear benefits for the industry, farmers and the planet.