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By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

President Biden announced a major goal this week--for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade as compared to 2005 levels.  Agriculture will play a key role in that reduction by “deploying cutting-edge tools to make the soil of our heartland the next frontier in carbon innovation,” according to President Biden.  Several bills introduced in Congress recently could help agriculture fulfill that key role.  The proposals offer incentives and assistance for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to engage in carbon sequestration practices. 

Here’s a summary of the bills that are receiving the most attention.

Growing Climate Solutions Act, S. 1251.  The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee passed S. 1251 today.  The bipartisan proposal led by sponsors Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) already has the backing of over half of the Senate as co-sponsors, including Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown.  The bill has come up in prior sessions of Congress without success, but the sponsors significantly reworked the bill and reintroduced it this week.  The new version includes these provisions:

  • Requires the USDA to conduct an initial assessment of the domestic market for carbon credits, to include assessing market actors, market demand, estimated credits in process, supply and demand of offsets, barriers to entry, monitoring and measurement technologies, barriers for small, beginning and socially disadvantaged operators, among other factors.
  • Creates a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program to ensure that technical service assistance providers who work with farmers to establish and sell carbon credits have sufficient expertise, including agricultural and forestry knowledge.  Certified parties are to act in good faith to provide realistic estimates of costs and revenues and to help farmers, ranchers and forester receive “fair distribution of revenues” derived from carbon credit sales. 
  • Establishes an online website providing information for farmers, ranchers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets.
  • Creates an advisory council that would oversee the certification program.  At least 16 of the committee’s 25 members must be farmers, ranchers, or private forest owners. 
  • Charges the USDA with producing a report to Congress identfying barriers to market entry, challenges raised by farmers and forest owners, market performance, and suggesting additional ways to encourage voluntary participation in carbon sequestration practices.
  • Authorizes up to $9.1 million in USDA funding for the program, including $4.1 million immediately and an additional $1 million per year for the next five years.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) will soon introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives.   

Rural Forest Markets Act, S. 1107.  A second proposal in Congress aims to remove barriers for small-scale private forest landowners and help them benefit from carbon markets and other climate solution markets.  Senators Stabenow and Braun are also sponsors of this bill, along with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).  The bill echoes previous similar legislative attempts and includes these provisions:

  • Directs the USDA to create a Rural Forest Market Investment Program to guarantee up to $150 million to finance eligible projects for rural private forest landowners to participate in an “innovative market for forest carbon or other products.” 
  • States that eligible projects will be those developed by private entities or nonprofits to aggregate sustainable practices by rural private forest landowners for sales in a carbon or environmental market, using approved methodologies. 
  • Requires that eligible tree planting projects may take place only on historically forested lands using native species and be planted at ecologically appropriate densities without causing negative impacts to biodiversity or the environment.

The interest in carbon reduction practices and monetizing carbon sequestration at the federal level doesn’t end with these two proposals—there are several more that may gain interest.   While not addressing private landowners, another Senate proposal focuses on public land reforestation.  The “Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act” (REPLANT Act), with Ohio’s Sen. Rob Portman as a sponsor, proposes increased funding in the Reforestation Trust Fund for replanting 1.2 billion trees over the next ten years on public land in need of reforestation.  The USDA is weighing in on the issue as well, and has recently announced plans to target carbon reduction through existing programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program.  And just after passing the Growing Climate Solutions Act today, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held a hearing on “Farmers and Foresters:  Opportunities to Lead in Tackling Climate Change” featuring testimony from several farmers and groups.  Readers may get a sense of what more is to come by viewing the hearing on the committee’s website

Last week's Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen illustrates one certainty about climate change -- the topic generates controversy.  And like animal welfare, climate change forces a painful divide within the agricultural community.  Below I offer two contrasting viewpoints on climate change and agriculture.  The first is from Neil Hamilton, law professor at Drake University School of Law in Des Moines, Iowa and director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center.  Prof. Hamilton attended the Copenhagen conference.  Second is an article from American Farm Bureau that summarizes its current cap and trade campaign.  Taken together, the articles clarify how difficult and important the issue is for agriculture.  From Neil Hamilton:  Agriculture must engage in climate change

Next month, I travel to Copenhagen for the U.N. Climate Change Negotiations (COP 15) with two Drake agricultural law students. We are part of the Iowa U.N. Association delegation going to witness the international talks on possibly the most significant environmental, social and political issue shaping our futures.
My special interest is what the talks may mean for farmers in the United States and abroad. U.S. policy discussions show much of America's agricultural sector doesn't take climate change seriously.The reality is the impacts of climate change are being felt around the globe - whether or not U.S. farm groups and politicians believe it. Fortunately, most other nations recognize the obligation and opportunity to engage in deciding how best to respond.
The adverse impacts climate change has on food production and the critical role agriculture may play in addressing it means farmers have a major stake in the debate.
The magnitude of U.S. contributions to greenhouse gas emissions make Copenhagen a prime opportunity for America to help lead development of effective responses - leadership the world needs and expects. The negotiations are especially important to farmers, because American agriculture thrives on international rules supporting free trade and open markets. If we engage at Copenhagen, then ideas to protect the environment and increase farm income may emerge, but sitting on the sidelines while others craft the agenda is a recipe for conflict and lost opportunities. Lack of U.S. leadership won't just limit success of the negotiations and limit the willingness of other nations to act, but may signal erosion in U.S. prestige and national confidence. The Kyoto climate-change treaty created little role for agriculture, but proposals for COP 15 give farmers a large, even central role. Still many U.S. farm groups are ambivalent - not just to Copenhagen but to whether climate change is real or U.S. action is needed.
Some groups like the National Farmers Union and the renewable energy coalition 25X25 endorse cap-and-trade legislation as the basis for ambitious goals for Copenhagen.
Others like the American Farm Bureau Federation oppose cap and trade - and appear uninterested in what the world may do. Farm Bureau members are being encouraged to protest to Congress "don't cap our future," arguing agriculture will suffer increased energy costs with no corresponding economic benefits. Studies show the proposed legislation will have limited impacts on farm costs and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack argues the law will open new streams of farm income from offsets and carbon markets. He has spent months explaining to farmers why they should support the legislation. Last week, President Barack Obama announced he and Vilsack will go to Copenhagen to show U.S. resolve to address climate change, even though Congress has yet to act.
Agriculture's opposition to cap and trade is delaying progress on legislation to reform U.S. energy policy. The lack of progress has already led to scaling back expectations for what might happen in Copenhagen. But remember the saying, "If you aren't part of the solution you are part of the problem." We shouldn't delude ourselves the rest of the world won't act without us or that we are immune from either the natural effects of climate change or the political effects of policies developed in our absence.
Our lack of engagement threatens to make U.S. agriculture the "problem" other nations address and risks development of an international agreement adverse to U.S. interests. Ironically the opposition may also jeopardize our ability to engage in international markets and the trade negotiations central to continued growth of American agriculture. The opposition to climate-change action is puzzling given agriculture's support for biofuels like corn ethanol as the "answer" to our energy needs. America's farmers have a successful history of innovating to meet new demands. But U.S. politics on cap and trade has become largely a question of "What is in it for me?" rather than focusing on how agricultural practices can help address climate change.
Our responding is not optional - the scientific and international political realities of climate change are real, as is the need to act. Yes, there is debate about whether the practices and policies being proposed will significantly reduce global temperatures, but disagreement about effectiveness shouldn't obscure the fact that doing nothing ensures no progress. From a legal perspective, something will happen. If Congress fails to act, the Environmental Protection Agency will regulate greenhouse gas emissions as required by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Legislation may raise concerns but it will be friendlier and more tailored to agriculture's needs than EPA regulations.
The world is going to address climate change, and farmers and agriculture in other nations will lead in developing responses - many have no choice if they are to protect their land and futures. The COP 15 negotiations are a stage on which the willingness of nations to act and lead will be measured. American agriculture is fond of congratulating itself for "feeding the world," even if the claim is far from true. The reality is most of the world tries to feed itself. The tragedy is that over 1 billion go hungry today, and climate change threatens even more. America may not feed the world, but we have long claimed a central role in leading it.
The climate-change debate is an opportunity for the United States - agriculture and farmers included - to live up to our self-image as leaders. Failing to do so risks America being seen as a self-serving nation in decline - a portrait our enemies and critics are happy to paint. My hope is we have the vision, courage and wisdom to rise to this occasion. That is why I am going to Copenhagen.

From the American Farm Bureau:  The Humble Farm Cap takes Center Stage

Across America, farmers and ranchers are gearing up to voice their concerns from the countryside about proposed climate change cap-and-trade legislation. United through a grassroots effort, food and fiber producers of all types will be using a familiar item – the humble farm cap – to capture the attention of lawmakers and make their views known.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is encouraging members of local and state Farm Bureaus to sign, right across the bill, a new farm cap and hand-deliver it to a member of Congress with the message “Don’t CAP Our Future.”
The farm cap is an ever-present icon of American agriculture, and it seemed a natural fit as the symbol with which to send a message regarding congressional cap-and-trade schemes. Virtually everyone in farm country, including school-age boys and girls who pitch in with pride alongside their parents and grandparents, sports a farm cap as they go about producing food for our nation and the world. Even cowboys are known to occasionally put their hats aside in favor of an unassuming farm cap.
But the symbol is only as strong as its message, and in this case, the message is robust – “Don’t CAP Our Future.” The message refers to the fact that analyses from numerous sources show farmers and ranchers will pay more for fuel, fertilizer and energy if cap-and-trade becomes law. Over time, these higher expenses and a shift in land use would lead to a decrease in food production in the United States.
Already, the economic situation in some sectors of agriculture is dire. Many farmers, particularly dairy and pork producers, are keeping financially afloat on nothing more than bank lines of credit. For many, sheer determination is what keeps them in business. Those who are persevering are doing so with a brighter future in mind. They are also driven by the goal of being able to pass the farm or ranch on to the next generation when they retire or perhaps farming with their children as they grow into adulthood.
“I’m doing this for my kids,” is an oft-expressed and sincere sentiment among farmers. During the “Don’t CAP Our Future” effort, that truth will likely be repeated to members of Congress, as they hand their lawmakers a signed farm cap and explain how their ability to produce food and fiber for the U.S. and much of the rest of the world will be compromised if cap-and-trade becomes law.
Consumers also will be hit hard under cap-and trade. The Department of Energy estimates energy costs could grow by $1,870 per household. Combined with higher costs for food, the additional yearly hit on families would be about $2,300 per household. Said another way, the cap-and-trade law would impose costs of up to $200 billion a year on American households.  (Note that a  more detailed explanation of American Farm Bureau's position on climate change is available at http://fb.org/issues/docs/climatechange09.pdf)
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