Carbon – until a few years ago the only time you’d hear the word uttered would be when it furred up a set of spark plugs.

Or, for the ageing cohort of journalists who learned to type on the old sit-up-and-beg Adler clackety-clack typewriters, carbon paper was the only way of ensuring you had a copy of your treasured words before they got into the hands of an unsympathetic sub-editor.

Fast forward to today and you can’t escape the term carbon – with endless talk of how to mitigate its emissions, how to sequester it, how to audit it and even how to trade the blessed stuff.

And last week saw the starting gun fired on the national effort to encourage us farmers to get to grips with carbon when the first phase of the Scottish Government’s Track 1 of the new sustainable farming policy opened for business.

Now if I remember my chemistry lessons, while it’s nowhere near the most abundant element on Earth, it accounts for more compounds than all the others combined – and by a happy coincidence is one of the elements common to all life forms.

In truth when the term carbon is used, rather than referring to its elemental forms – such as diamond, graphite, coal and coke – it tends to be used as a shorthand for one key molecule, carbon dioxide, the combination of one carbon atom and two of oxygen.

Under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rules, which focuses on the greenhouse gas potential of different chemicals, CO2 is taken as the standard unit of warming effect, with other gases being given a ‘CO2 equivalent’ value.

And while many in the other sectors of the industry – and increasingly so the retail sector – have been swift to see the marketing advantages of being able to claim they are carbon neutral or negative. This exercise is asking farmers to audit their businesses and assess how much they release and how much they tie down during their operations.

For most other sectors of industry this might be a fairly straightforward calculation – with transport, power and other energy sources which are consumed in the production, packaging and delivery of their manufactured goods being totted up to give a carbon footprint.

Farming, on the other hand is slightly more complicated.

For farming harnesses natural processes – which tend to be more messy and more difficult to quantify or accurately predict. And, along with forestry, farming has the unique ability to actually absorb CO2 and reduce the amount which contributes to the global warming potential of the atmosphere.

Every blade of grass, every head of corn, every grain of barley has the ability to lock up CO2 through the primary driving force of life on Earth – photosynthesis. And that’s what farming is ultimately about...harvesting solar energy from the sun and turning it into food for the human population.

But, and this is a very big but, while the accepted international protocol for calculating emissions is pretty much understood and standardised, that for allocating credits for the sequestration is less well developed.

While the convention has taken the decision to recognise the amounts of CO2 absorbed by forestry and woodlands as being fixed there (despite the fact that much of this is returned to the atmosphere through burning in woodchip boilers and suchlike) what is fixed by grain and other crops and which are consumed fairly swiftly do not receive the same recognition.

So despite the fact that every acre of barley actually locks up several tonnes of CO2, no credit is given for this due to the fact that it will soon be consumed.

The issue is further complicated by the use of fertilisers to boost productivity, the addition of grazing livestock to turn grass which is indigestible by humans into readily digestible animal protein – and this practice is yet further complicated by the emissions of methane by the bugs inhabiting the stomachs of the ruminants which we use to do this.

So far it has proved difficult for the amount of CO2 sequestered in grasslands to be calculated, and also that added to the soils through the absorption of crop residues – and while the science is developing it is yet to be perfected.

Currently the different processes used in the multitude of carbon calculators (or perhaps more accurately 'ready reckoners') for undertaking an audit can give hugely varying results for individual farms.

So while the Scottish Government’s new carbon auditing scheme may mark a starting point for benchmarking the industry’s performance, until the science is better understood, more fairly recognised and fully integrated into a single, standardised calculator, it should be viewed as work in progress rather than as a final result.

On this front I liked the idea floated at NFU Scotland’s recent webinar on carbon credits and carbon trading which argued that the protein from grass, via our grazing livestock, is then sequestered in human bodies for several decades before it is finally released.

And, thinking about it, I strongly suspect that the carbon fixed by our malting barley which is used in the production of some of these fancy malt whiskies which are aged for 10, 15 or even 20 years would be tied up for just as long as a lot of the timber which is produced in forests around the country.

However, probably the most important message to come out of that well attended webinar was the warning to farmers not to be too keen to sell the family silver in the form of carbon credits for a quick buck – and to make sure that if you were considering doing so, you were fully aware of all the risks which you were taking on board when so doing.

While it was claimed that the Scottish Government – and those around the world – would be unable to deliver on climate change targets without bringing the farming sector on board, the industry was warned that it needed to engage more with the emerging science, regulations and trading landscape surrounding the growing markets for carbon monitoring and trading – in other words to get a bit more savvy before dealing with the big boys.

Speaking at the webinar, union president Martin Kennedy stressed that the current UK Government consultation on the issue was of key importance, stating: “The three key questions we have to answer in the consultation are – do we need a standardised carbon calculator to validate emissions and sequestration of greenhouse gases; should carbon trading be available to provide and income for farms and crofts; and should the carbon trading market be regulated?”

But he admitted that while the topic was of great importance not only in future policy decisions but also as part of commercial contracts, many in the farming sector had yet to waken up to the issue – despite recent market distortions caused by outside speculation in the market which had resulted in the price of tree plantable land soaring beyond farmers’ pockets

Both Kennedy and the union’s climate change specialist, Kate Hopper, stressed that it was crucial for the industry – and individual businesses – to balance their own credits first before considering selling them to other industries looking to buy their way out of trouble.

Producers were warned that if they did decide to sell credits, they needed to watch their step – and take on board the fact that this would be a long term commitment which could place considerable restraints on how a business could operate in the future – and which brought a whole new suite of risks to be managed, such as the effects of weather events like last year’s Storm Awen which destroyed thousands of acres of forestry and the recent increase in wildfires.

However it was also pointed out that other parts of the supply chain should have an interest in farming reducing its carbon footprint – rather than simply hijacking the efforts which farmers had put into reducing emissions and claiming credit for it from the consumer.

And Hopper suggested that in many cases the best way forward would be for producers to work in partnership with others in that chain and to gain additional investment for the use of technologies which would reduce emissions – an interesting idea and one which could end up helping all the links in the chain.

While the webinar also saw repeated calls for some sort of consistency between the many different carbon calculator tools currently available – which could draw widely varying conclusions from the same data-set – those who tuned in heard that the industry should beware of completely tying itself down as the science was continually developing:

“And we’ve seen this in the speed with which organisations make use of the latest science – and while Government have been slow to change and develop their ideas, the commercial sector has moved much faster,” said Hopper.

“Basically we need both standardisation and innovation to ensure that both the way in which we measure carbon emissions and sequestrations reflect the latest science.”

But with the whole area being so complicated and constantly developing, there was also a suggestion that some form of training and education should be made available to farmers to help us understand some of the complexities underlying the issue.

So maybe we need to take some baby steps before we start to run when it comes to trading on our carbon footprints.