Image: Marking Milestones, CCP, (Nicholas A. Tonelli)

Voluntary carbon offset programs are growing dramatically, driven by corporate net-zero pledges and increasing interest in carbon offsets to achieve Paris climate goals.1 Conservation, restoration and management of forests, farmland and wetlands can deliver significant carbon storage and are a vital part of these programs. Unfortunately, it can be prohibitively expensive for landowners to enter these programs if they own fewer than 5,000 acres. The administrative burden of registering, verifying and monitoring land for carbon offsets is too great for most small landowners. 

Land trusts, carbon developers (aggregators or retailers between project developers and buyers), and other entrepreneurs are beginning to tackle this problem, creating opportunities for smaller landowners to join together so that they can more efficiently participate in carbon offset programs and other ecosystem service programs in a practice known as aggregation. Aggregation programs vary widely, but the common theme is that they reduce costs (both time and money) for landowners by enabling economies of scale that result from grouping smaller projects together.

Helping small landowners in the Chesapeake Bay watershed tap into these growing carbon offset programs would accelerate conservation in the region. More funding is required in order to accomplish the needed restoration and conservation across the 64,000 square miles of the Chesapeake

Bay Watershed. Much of this land is in private ownership, making individual landowners key to its sustainable management. The region also faces an increasingly parcelized land ownership pattern, where many landowners each hold small pieces of land. 

A new report generously funded by The National Park Service and sponsored by The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership (CCP), documents examples of how organizations across the country are helping to aggregate small landowners to participate in ecosystem service markets and conservation programs. Through research and interviews with conservation practitioners, the report documents twenty programs and highlights four case studies noting lessons learned that could apply to pilot aggregation programs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and beyond. The report also highlights resources available and trends to follow in the coming months and years. Just a few of the resources highlighted in the report: 

Aggregators – Many of the leading innovators in this space, some of whom are featured in the report (Quantified Ventures and NCX, for example), are expanding their work in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Quantified Ventures’ Soil and Water Outcomes Fund is currently enrolling farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Another example is The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program, which is engaging landowners who own a minimum of 2,000 forested acres. The American Forest Foundation’s Family Forest Carbon Program is enrolling landowners in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and select counties in Maryland who are eligible based on size and goals for their land. This program targets smaller landowners, with the average at 144 acres enrolled per landowner. 

Public and quasi-public grant and loan programs – A number of aggregation pilot projects have been funded through the NRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG). Staying abreast of new RCPP and CIG grants that relate to aggregation would be helpful to see what other innovators are doing in this space. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) also supports conservation finance and market development projects. State Revolving Funds (SRFs) like the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds have been used to provide seed funding for aggregation programs, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law doubled this funding. 

Philanthropic funding – in addition to the public funding sources mentioned above, there may be opportunities to seek funding from private foundations and individuals to pilot aggregation programs. Given that many aggregation programs will eventually generate revenue through the sale of carbon offsets or other

ecosystem services, private funders may be particularly drawn to the idea of seeding a project that is ultimately self-sustaining. 

As carbon offset programs grow and become a larger part of corporate strategies to reach net-zero, they attract more scrutiny from legislators and the public to ensure that they are providing the benefits they claim. Given the urgency of reducing emissions to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, such oversight is essential in ensuring carbon offset programs have the impact they aspire to. Land trusts should be especially careful about additionality when engaging landowners who already have conservation easements. If the land management practices would have happened anyway (i.e., without any prospect for project owners to sell carbon offset credits), then they are not additional. The landowner and the aggregating organization must both be certain that the easement is allowed by whatever carbon offset protocol is used and that the practices implemented are both allowed by the easement and enhance the carbon sequestered beyond baseline levels. 

What happens on the thousands of small farms and forests within the watershed has a profound effect on water quality in the Bay. The aggregation of multiple small landowners can increase the scale of conservation by unlocking new funding sources and enabling smaller landowners to participate more efficiently in conservation programs and markets for ecosystem services. Aggregation programs can help level the playing field – giving small, non-industrial landowners the opportunity to benefit from this innovative and rapidly-expanding conservation funding source. 

1Forest Trends’ Ecosystem Marketplace Insights Report:Markets in Motion State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2021 Installment 1, September 2021. 

In-text Images: 

  2. Soil & Water Outcomes Fund Logo 
  3. Working Woodlands Logo 
  4. The Family Forest Carbon Program Logo 
  5. Blue Ridge Parkway view, (NPS, Harold Blackwood photo) 

Lightning Update is a regular communication of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership. Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Partnership or member organizations.
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Support for the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is provided by:
National Park Service Chesapeake
EPA Chesapeake Bay Program
USDA Forest Service
Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources
Maryland Department of Natural Resources
Virginia Outdoors Foundation
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Chesapeake Conservancy

The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership is co-convened by: