Can golf courses earn money from carbon?

  • Carbon Par
    Edwin Roald

    Borgarnes Golf Course is one of a number of Icelandic courses that is having its carbon status assessed

Edwin Roald
By Edwin Roald

Responding to the climate crisis requires us to minimise greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. The importance of these actions will soon be reflected in new legislation from governing bodies, taxation, our bottom line, and ultimately in our attitude and behaviour regarding this pressing issue.

Like trees, and plants in general, grass can store carbon, and managed turfgrass can even sequester more carbon than unmanaged grassland. Furthermore, more frequent mowing can encourage sequestration.

This puts golf courses in a unique position. For as long as we can remember, fairways and mown rough on most golf courses have been mown frequently enough so that the removal of the tiny grass clippings has been avoided. Instead, they are left to break down in the sward, as organic matter, where they seem to contribute to an even faster and greater build-up of carbon, in the soil and biomass. Very few other owners of turfgrass areas, or lawns, do this.

On the other hand, wetland drainage emits carbon dioxide. Therefore, some golf course areas store carbon, while others, usually unknowingly, release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. A golf course is therefore either carbon positive or negative, under or over the ‘carbon par’.

Carbon Par is the title of Eureka Golf’s research into the carbon status of land used by all Icelandic golf courses, the first national governing body in golf to produce such a complete account.

In addition to each course’s carbon par, the research is expected to reveal how much carbon may be sequestered in turf and its soil, by variables such as soil type and mowing frequency. Also, an effort is made to identify wetlands that may be restored without negatively affecting the golf operation or customer experience.

Inevitably, some golf courses will show a negative result. However, scapegoating is not an objective here. Moreover, courses that use wetlands to a certain degree may be in the best position going forward, with the most revenue potential, since the prevention of emissions through wetland reclamation can yield more carbon, per area unit.

The emergence of this new economy and currency is bound to change golf course architecture. The already intensifying pressure on land builds even further, with increased land demand for forestry and wetland reclamation projects contributing to higher prices. Emissions from construction will be under greater scrutiny, as therefore will be the scale of earthworks. This should increase the importance of good site selection and flexible routing, possibly including more responsive hole counts, to steer away from wetlands and thus facilitate their protection or reclamation. Tree removal will not be as widely celebrated.

Turf management is getting cleaner, including mowing, which may also become less expensive with automation. Advocates of ‘width and angles’ will rejoice, as minimising the total area of managed turf will no longer be a default position. This may depend on the irrigation water source and associated energy use. On the other hand, carbon sequestration potential will cause us to see irrigation in a new perspective, where it will contribute to the plant’s health, helping it to store carbon.

A few golf clubs have recently pledged to achieve carbon neutrality.

So far, this has mostly been defined in terms of operations, and not what the land is doing. Considering both, it is possible that a number of golf facilities are not only carbon neutral already, but carbon positive.

Being on the right side of par, and getting recognised for being a part of the solution, and not the problem, minimises or entirely avoids future purchases of carbon credits or payments towards carbon offsetting that are bound to become mandatory in the new economy. Depending on how this develops, golf courses that are well located, planned, designed, built and managed have a realistic chance of being seen as carbon sinks.

Edwin Roald is an Icelandic golf course designer and is the founder and director of Eureka Golf

This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.