29 October 2023 |

Rice farming gets its due


Methane mitigation is a massive opportunity area to decelerate global warming. Given that methane (CH4) emissions drive anywhere from 20 to 30% of observable global warming, I see it as a drastically under-discussed and underserved area. For instance, in recent years, low-carbon transport received 15x more investment than methane mitigation, and solar and wind electricity generation received 26x more investment (and that’s compared to methane as a whole category).  

Some of this makes sense; it’s easier to sell energy or cars than methane avoidance. The business models there are much more clear. Still, the private sector needs to help accelerate the methane market so it doesn’t remain 5-10 years behind the market for carbon-focused solutions. 

As we’ll see today, though, the conversation is shifting. More people are building solutions to tackle methane emissions across their anthropogenic sources. And methane emissions are becoming an increasingly ‘hot’ prerogative for national governments and international organizations:

While methane has a shorter atmospheric lifetime than CO2, it carries a 100-year global warming potential that’s 28-34 times more potent than CO2. That’s why, pound for pound, reducing methane emissions is a more impactful way to decelerate global warming in the short term.

The unassuming rice paddy

I’ve written about methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure. I’ve written about methane emissions from agriculture, especially from cattle. But I haven’t written about methane emissions from rice farming, even though these account for ~10% of anthropogenic methane emissions.

A breakdown of anthropogenic methane emissions worldwide. As you can see, while estimates for rice farming’s share vary, they’re significant by all accounts (source). 

Reducing methane emissions from rice farming will depend on farming practice change. The fact that rice farming produces methane emissions hinges in large part on how rice is traditionally farmed. Rice, unlike other crops, is grown in a semi-aquatic fashion; fields are intentionally flooded and lay in standing water for long periods. Bathing in water is what rice needs to thrive. 

Still, as oxygen levels deplete under layers of standing water, microbes that feed on organic matter can start producing and emitting methane. 

There is academic research that suggests farming practice changes required to reduce methane emissions aren’t necessarily overly onerous or expensive for farmers without compromising yields. For instance, one research team found that: 

Draining and reflooding the fields three or four times during the growing season can reduce methane emissions by at least 50%.

That’s a staggering level of impact to achieve with relatively simple practice changes. 

Of course, studies are one thing. There’s a lot that lies between one study and repeatable, measurable, and verifiable results in the real world. Still, this week, CarbonFarm, a company based out of Paris, announced a €2.5M seed round to see if they can incentivize farmers to make practice changes and measure and verify the impact of those efforts at scale. 

The company plans to use satellites to measure the impact of practice change and, based on the rewards, to use the infrastructure of the carbon market to reward and pay farmers. 

There is some precedent for this already. Gold Standard, a carbon credit certification agency, has a methodology for credits from rice farming and has facilitated demo projects that generated carbon equivalent emissions reduction credits. 

Similarly, other companies have had some success using a similar model to accelerate carbon sequestration in agricultural soil. Nori is a Seattle-based, venture-backed company I’ve covered (and worked with) that has built a business by sharing carbon credit revenue with farmers who adopt regenerative agriculture practices that serve to increase soil carbon sequestration. 

In addition to the fact that they’re focused on methane emissions from rice farming in the first place and that they’re building on a model others have pioneered, what I like most about CarbonFarm’s approach is their intent to use satellites to measure and verify emissions mitigation. 

This is a good example of how the fundamentally new data streams that are coming online across climate tech can be integrated to aid other businesses. To point more clearly at what I’m talking about, take Orbital Sidekick, another company we’ve covered. Orbital Sidekick is building a constellation of hyperspectral satellites that can identify and quantify the scope of methane leaks from oil and gas pipelines. Perhaps they’ll work with CarbonFarm, too, down the road. 

Don’t you love it when all the advances weave together? I sure do. 

Rice farmers work on flooded fields in Thailand (Shutterstock)

The net-net

There’s a lot that needs to be true for CarbonFarm’s work to succeed. The academic research on practice changes that reduce methane emissions from rice farming needs to be borne out and prove replicability. The methane emissions mitigation potential for farmers must be significant enough to translate into a sufficiently sized monetary incentive if reduced. The measuring and monitoring processes need to be credible and scalable. 

Most important, however, is the state of carbon markets as a whole. Solutions like CarbonFarm require buyers who haven’t soured on carbon credits entirely and are willing to catalyze (i.e., take a risk) this new credit class. 

Carbon markets are much maligned. I would blush if publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Guardian deigned to publish countless breathless articles about me (even if they’re all negative).

Still, what CarbonFarm is doing is an excellent example of leveraging carbon markets for their highest and best use, i.e., when there isn’t another readily available option. Absent direct support, say, from the Vietnamese or Thai government, what other incentive could be offered to Southeast Asian rice farmers to shift generational farming practices? It’d be a tall order for white folks to march in and ask them to change out of goodwill in order to tackle a problem that they largely didn’t cause.