The introduction last week of bipartisan legislation in the Senate that could jumpstart a market for carbon retained in the soil by farmers is a big policy step forward in enabling agriculture to provide solutions to climate change. The Growing Climate Solutions Act represents real progress in designing and advancing a practical and pragmatic approach to enable and reward farmers who deliver climate solutions.
The legislation aims to break down barriers for farmers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets so they can be rewarded for climate smart practices. The act creates a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers that prevent farmers and forestland owners from participating in carbon credit markets. The measure also aims to improve access to reliable information about markets and provide access to experts who can offer qualified technical assistance and verify credit protocols.
These goals are ambitious – but promoting carbon sequestration practices through the enactment of the legislation would represent only the beginning for the climate smart agriculture (CSA) enabling polices needed to realize the full potential of agricultural solutions to climate change.
Earlier this year, the SfL-supported North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA) submitted fifty CSA enabling policiesto the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (HSCCC). Yesterday, during a NACSAA webinar on agricultural solutions to global mega-challenges, HSCCC Majority Staff Director Ana Unruh Cohen thanked the Alliance for its suggestions and noted that many would likely be included in the committee’s report when it is issued later this month or in early July. This is an encouraging sign that agriculture’s role as a major climate solution pathway is at long last being discovered and valued.
NACSAA’s recommendations cover the three complementary pillars of climate smart agriculture strategy: 1) sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and livelihoods (i.e. sustainable intensification); 2) enhancing adaptive capacity and improving resilience; and 3) delivering ecosystem services, sequestering carbon, and reducing and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
Another approach advocated by NACSAA in the Pillar Three mitigation arena is the greater use of cleaner renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel. Unfortunately, the EPA has been less than fully committed to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and other, existing enabling policies designed to replace higher GHG petroleum fuels with renewable fuels. The agency’s exploding giveaway in recent years of small refinery waivers exempting operations owned by oil industry giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron from blending biofuels within their petroleum-based fuels has resulted in increases rather than decreases in GHG emissions.
Also within the GHG reduction pillar under CSA is methane capture, such as that achieved by implementing biodigesters on livestock operations to convert the powerful emissions from manure into natural gas. Methane represents by volume only a small fraction of the GHGs generated, but has been found to be 84 times more potent than other GHGs after two decades. Nonetheless, policymaker support for a technology that has been mature for more than a decade has not been overwhelming and as a result, it remains expensive. Currently, only 255 anaerobic digester projects operate on livestock farms in the United States. Enabling policies are needed to scale up digester operations as well.
The other two pillars of CSA – one that encompasses adaptation and resiliency and the other promoting sustainable intensification of all things (including ecosystem services) produced by farmers – also merit strong policymaker support.
CSA aims to boost an operation’s capacity to sustainably produce food, feed, fiber, and renewable energy, as well as – rather than at the expense of – agriculture-sourced ecosystem services such as cleaner water, improved wildlife habitat and better soil quality.
Last week’s legislation is a major step forward in the policy arena and has the backing of the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, along with business interests like McDonald’s and Microsoft. More than 40 farm groups, environmental organizations and Fortune 500 companies have endorsed the measure.
But its fate in Congress is far from certain. While the bill is sponsored by senators from both sides of the aisle – Sens. Mike Braun (R-IN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) – a hearing on the measure in the Senate Agriculture Committee is not guaranteed. There is, as yet, no companion legislation in the House.
SfL encourages policymakers to take a close look at other farmer-centric enabling policies outlined in the new Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions report, “Rural Investment: Building a Natural Climate Solutions Policy Agenda that Works for Rural America and the Climate.” The report includes a valuable menu of policy ideas capable of both garnering the necessary support from rural America and helping the United States reach its climate goals through natural climate solutions. As the world looks for answers to the now co-joined mega and growing food security, health, climate and environmental challenges of our times, the good news is that agriculture is capable of delivering solutions at scale. Now is the time to construct the enabling policies needed for these high value solutions to be realized.