November 2, 2023

Launching the Community Enhanced Rock Weathering Quantification Standard Process

Hara Wang, Jenny Mills

2023 and 2024 represent a critical time in the development of agricultural enhanced rock weathering (ERW) as an industry and pathway. Increasingly large-scale field trials and deployments are beginning globally, major buyers are signing the first ERW offtake agreements, and new suppliers are entering the market at a rapid clip.

As the market grows, it is increasingly important that we ensure that quantification of net carbon dioxide removal (CDR) through ERW is done in accordance with best available science. There are several unsettled topics related to quantification that the ERW community needs to align on early. Specifically, we need to:

  • Align on the carbon and cation fluxes that must be accounted for in net CDR quantification, and a range of acceptable options to quantify these fluxes and associated uncertainties, based on current knowledge.
  • Build clarity on the research agenda and data collection needs in the coming years to further improve our quantification approaches, and reduce key uncertainties.
  • Create a transparent process to iterate future standards as science progresses.

The process of gaining community consensus on what needs to be measured—and how—will accelerate the rate of progress for the field as a whole, while kickstarting a virtuous cycle of buyer confidence and deployment-led innovation.

In light of the above, Cascade is coordinating a process to develop a community ERW quantification standard. This work-in-progress industry-wide standard will help ensure rigor and consistency in the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of ERW as market activity accelerates. As a foundational first step on the path toward a community quantification standard, 93 leaders in ERW—spanning scientists, suppliers, buyers, credit issuers, civil society and more—have publicly signed onto a set of Core Principles. These Core Principles capture what we have agreed on as a community about the quantification of net carbon removal via ERW in agricultural soils. They also describe essential design principles for developing, evolving and stewarding the standard.

In what follows below, we unpack the context surrounding this standard development effort: the rationale for a true ERW industry-wide community standard, how the community standard relates to credit issuers and protocol development, and the process by which the community standard will be developed, operationalized and stewarded.

Why a quantification standard?

Quantifying net carbon removal is inherently more challenging for ERW than for any closed-system carbon removal pathway (e.g. DAC), where carbon can often be directly “metered”. An end-to-end ERW carbon accounting requires the measurement or modeling of a series of carbon and cation fluxes across the soil column, groundwater, river systems, and oceans. Taking measurements in these extensively heterogeneous natural systems and combining them to assemble a comprehensive picture of net carbon removal is inherently complex.

Thankfully we already know a great deal about quantifying ERW. This knowledge builds on decades of research quantifying natural weathering fluxes and, in recent years, field trials and pre-purchases of carbon dioxide removal tons via ERW. Yet many gaps in our understanding and toolkit must be addressed through further research. Evolving the way we measure and model all the various carbon fluxes and second-order impacts—quantifying the associated uncertainty, propagating error through the system, and discounting rigorously—will be an ongoing iterative improvement effort for many years.

Meanwhile, recent developments make clear that commercial activity in ERW is accelerating. Deployments will start scaling rapidly, making the next 1-2 years a critical crossroads for ERW. We have the opportunity to initiate a virtuous market cycle whereby rigor and consistency in quantification becomes the bedrock for buyer and public confidence—leading to growing deployment and learning-by-doing. Growing troves of on-field data will contribute to closing the uncertainty gaps in quantification, iteratively improving the standard.

What is a quantification standard?

The terms “standard”, “protocol”, and “methodology” are used inconsistently, carrying different meanings and implications for different people. We want to be explicit about what we mean, in the hopes of building toward a new and widely-agreed set of definitions.

We use the term protocol to refer to a specific description of the measurements and calculations used to quantify net CDR for a specific supplier or approach. This includes a list of quantitative data and measurements to be taken at a specified sample density, how those samples will be processed, what models will be used, and how all of the measured and modeled output is synthesized to calculate tons removed and associated uncertainty. In other words, protocols are quite specific. They are a plan to follow; an order of operations.

A quantification standard for ERW exists at a higher level than these protocols. While allowing for protocol diversity and not mandating any specific required approach to quantification, it enumerates the “common core” elements that must be consistent across all scientifically rigorous protocols.

Some use “methodology” to refer to something akin to a standard: a set of guidelines defining what protocols or sets of measurements meet a high bar. For clarity, we will only use the term “standard.” You could think of a standard as “rules for evaluating a protocol”—removing ambiguity in determining whether a protocol is sufficiently rigorous.

It’s also important to call out that a quantification standard is much narrower than a holistic crediting standard. Quantification standards only govern the quantification portions of a broader crediting standard, and are distinct from crediting rules. For example, quantification standards do not cover issues such as how credits are registered, issued, and retired, how to avoid double counting, how a validation and verification process is run, etc.

Generally, our hope is to help the durable CDR industry move to a lexicon and market architecture that is in line with more established industries like financial accounting, food safety, fisheries management, etc. Developing true industry-wide standards for crediting—and within them, standards for carbon removal quantification that leading scientists agree reflect best available science—sit at the heart of this evolution. These industry-wide standards do not exist today.

What is a dynamic quantification standard?

The standard will also be explicitly dynamic—a version 1.0 that anticipates periodic iteration over time. We consider this a key design feature given the known, and potentially unknown, gaps in our scientific understanding. The standard will need to get updated as more data is collected, the science of ERW progresses, and our level of comfort with various quantification methods evolves.

Specifically, we will need to develop clear processes for:

  • Incorporating relevant new scientific research into following iterations.
  • Gathering feedback from scientists, startups, governments, and other stakeholders between iteration cycles.
  • Learning from deployment data collected under the previous version of the standard.

Whose standard?

The community ERW quantification standard will be a community good. The standard will be freely available and we welcome, encourage, and hope for the standard to be adopted by any existing credit issuers, suppliers, and buyers.

In addition, it’s worth stressing again that there is no “Cascade Standard”. Cascade will never become a credit issuer nor a standards body. We want to partner with scientists, suppliers, buyers, credit issuers and governance bodies to build community alignment and bring the dream of a robust, rigorous, and consistent MRV system into reality. Cascade will help stand up the core building blocks of that system before handing those over to the right long-term stewards.

How will a true industry standard help the market?

The community quantification standard process is the first-of-it-kind in CDR standard development. This process is an explicitly different model than most carbon methodology processes to date (e.g. Verra methodologies), in which a credit issuer produces a standard principally for the use of minting credits on their own platform. Instead, we hope this standard can be used by buyers, suppliers, credit issuers, and academics across the entire field.

As it currently stands, credit issuers like Verra, Puro, or Isometric, each create their own unique quantification methodology. The significant variability and absence of a “common core” across methodologies causes both large discrepancies in the MRV requirements that credit issuers impose upon suppliers and an understandable hesitation by CDR buyers as to whether all tons are equally rigorous and valid.

Current State

Due to the differing MRV requirements, suppliers might be incentivized to choose credit issuers with more lenient (and thus artificially lower-cost) MRV requirements, leading to a race to the bottom with quality. Buyers don’t know whose quality bar they should trust. Credit issuers and scientists both end up doing some degree of duplicative work, with the same scientific experts called upon in competing quantification methodology development processes.

These are structural shortcomings, and no-one’s fault—yet they result in ERW MRV operating on quicksand rather than a strong foundation that instills public confidence.

In the desired “after” state, the ERW community will enjoy a shared, industry-wide quantification standard. Credit issuers can freely adopt the community standard as the “common core” quantification requirements—while preserving the ability to customize and differentiate by wrapping around the “common core” additional methodological elements.

After 1.0

Under this model, our expectation is that the ERW market can transition towards operating with clear, consistent and industry-wide quantification rules of the road. Buyers can make commitments with confidence, and suppliers and credit issuers can operate their businesses with certainty knowing what must be quantified—and how—in order to generate valid carbon credits.

How will the standard be built?

Several core tenets guided the design of the community quantification standard development process:

  • Inclusive, transparent, and high-integrity process that the community can feel proud of and confident in.
  • Striving towards the development of an industry-wide standard with broad market adoption.
  • Scrupulous avoidance of conflicts of interest. Funding for the community standard development process is entirely philanthropic, and the process is governed by a Steering Committee with no financial stake in ERW credit sales.
  • Strong collaboration between industry and academic scientists. Academic and civil-society scientists should be the core engine for standard definition (again to minimize conflicts of interest), but must remain in constant conversation with market participants and industry-based scientists throughout.

The standard is being developed through a multi-stage process involving two core tracks:

  • Deep deliberation by a set of Working Groups (WGs) composed of research scientists free of any conflicts of interest. Five Working Groups will be covering the following topics
    • WG 1: Methods for measuring initial feedstock dissolution and alkalinity dynamics in the soil column
    • WG 2: Constraining transient and permanent alkalinity sinks in the soil column and interactions with soil organic matter
    • WG 3: Downstream evasion—catchments, rivers, oceans
    • WG 4: Soil reactive transport models
    • WG 5: Life cycle assessment, and best practice for ecological and community impact assessment
    • Cross-WG: Consistent and rigorous uncertainty discounting
  • Industry Focus Groups and other forms of dialogue between market participants and the Working Groups. This dialogue solves for a) drawing on the expertise of the many excellent scientists who work at ERW suppliers; and b) ensuring that questions of operational feasibility and cost are properly addressed in the process of developing the standard.

At the end of each stage in the process, sets of key outputs are generated that iterate progressively toward a fully-drafted standard.

  • Preparation (Sep-early Nov 2023): A set of high-level core principles, describing key quantification components and guiding principles for the standard development process, were developed with consultation and feedback from across the community.
  • Public knowledge synthesis and standard ideation (early Nov 2023-mid Jan 2024): A series of summaries capturing the state of public knowledge on key quantification questions and potential paths forward for the standard are being developed by the Working Groups. These summaries are iteratively refined through feedback from market practitioners, industry-based scientists, and other experts not serving on the Working Groups.
  • Iterative standard consultation (mid Jan-early Mar 2024): A series of problem-solving sessions will bring together representatives from Working Groups and Industry Focus Groups to develop actionable solutions to questions raised or option sets proposed during the initial Working Group sessions. The Cascade team will begin drafting the standard based on the outcome of these iterative consultations.
  • Standard decision deliberation (early Mar-Q2 2024): Proposed standard language will be brought back to the Working Groups for review and final decision deliberation.
  • Full standard feedback and public consultation (Q2 2024): The full draft v1.0 standard will be available for review and feedback by the entire ERW community before finalization in Q2 2024.

What happens after the v1.0 standard and how will the standard be implemented?

To integrate the v1.0 standard fully into the ERW market, a set of activities will happen in parallel to get and help stakeholders across the ecosystem to adopt the standard. This means working through questions and obstacles as buyers, suppliers, credit issuers align their operations with the standard. The first wave of suppliers, in particular, will require some support to close the gap between their current protocols and the v1.0 standard.

A new independent mechanism will also need to be set up to assess the conformity of supplier protocols and credit-issuer methodologies with the standard. The goal here isn’t to “police” market activities, but rather to help create the engine that moves the market towards a world whereby all ERW deployments follow the same quantification requirements, and the public has the trust and confidence in the delivery claims.

A standard update process needs to be designed to incorporate new best-available science at a pace in step with the learning rate of the market.

Cascade will serve as an interim steward of the v1.0 standard, taking on the post-publication functions listed above for a time-limited period. As soon as possible, these functions will be handed over to a true long-term steward. We are already beginning to explore options for and lay the groundwork for this transition.

We want to share the deepest gratitude for the ERW leaders who have signed on the Core Principles. We also want to thank everyone who has helped us design the community standard process, who are participating in the process, and who will be an integral part of iterative drafting, finalizing and implementation of the resulting standard.

We recognize that we probably have left out folks that should’ve been part of the process. If you are someone or you’ve come across someone that should be involved in this journey, please do not hesitate to reach out to [email protected].