Can Farms, Forests, and Grasslands Help U.S. Fight Climate Change?

Agriculture Forests Feb 24, 2016
Steve Zwick and Michael Jenkins

Last December, when the gavel came down in Paris to seal the global climate change agreement, hundreds on hand to see the historic moment thrust their arms into the air in a moment of jubilation. At the same time, back here in the U.S. climate policy experts may have been throwing their arms up in exasperation as they watched domestic climate policies increasingly jeopardized.

A new report by Forest Trends and the Nicholas Institute at Duke University, “Building Carbon in America’s Farms, Forests, and Grasslands: Foundations for a Policy Roadmap,” looks at how the land sector can play an important role in delivering on the U.S. Paris commitment, providing something of an “insurance policy” for other sectors as we reduce emissions across the economy.

farm_3804820_webLand has the potential to either mitigate or exacerbate global climate change depending on whether it removes – or “sequesters” – more CO2 than it emits into the atmosphere. For the past several decades, the U.S. land has been a net carbon “sink,” offsetting more than 15% of fossil fuel-related emissions each year. That’s about 850 million metric tons of CO2e, more than half of what we in the US release each year in in annual domestic transportation emissions.

However, it is uncertain whether U.S. land can continue to act as a carbon “sink” going forward, according to recent official projections. There are no guidelines for how to manage public lands to enhance carbon. And for private lands, there are few incentives for landowners to prioritize carbon against other management objectives.

A number of first steps have been taken to address those gaps and the potential problems they bring with them. For example, in 2015, the USDA announced a “10 Building Blocks” program that enhances carbon sequestration through existing programs and authorities. But more is needed going forward if we are to effectively harness the potential of the U.S. landscapes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Enter the Land Carbon Policy Roadmap (LCPR) Initiative, which was founded with exactly these objectives in mind. The initiative’s first step was to break down the silos that kept different sectors and areas of expertise from interacting to find innovative policy solutions, bringing together actors from the forestry and agricultural sectors, as well as academics, government officials, and environmental stakeholders.

Next, the initiative’s inaugural report, released this week, lays out the foundation for a policy roadmap, looking to create a vision for how U.S. lands can continue to act as a strong carbon sink. New policy frameworks are needed that protect carbon-rich landscapes, so that carbon essentially becomes one of the resources – like wetlands and species habitat – that American land owners carefully manage.

To achieve these big-picture goals, the report recommends concrete action in a few areas:

1. Support decision-makers with high-quality information

Recognizing that information is not always presented in a form that meets decision-makers’ needs, the report suggests that data about land carbon be organized so that it is useful to this audience. The same group also needs better support in understanding the effects their decisions on land’s ability to mitigate carbon emissions.

2. Assess existing policies and make them work for land carbon

Looking at which factors drive change in land carbon management, the report assesses existing U.S. policies and programs, and how they can be used to enhance the potential of land to act as a carbon sink. In order for this to happen, policymakers need to be equipped with the right frameworks to help them evaluate how their policy decisions affect land carbon. In cases of existing conservation and incentive programs, carbon benefits should be taken into account more often in funding decisions. Policy frameworks that make use of creative market-based approaches should also be used to attract capital from the private sector.

3. Connect landowner and financial stakeholders in roundtables and regional demonstrations to build grass-roots support and markets for land carbon

Building stakeholder buy-in and incorporating their needs into policy formation is critical to the success of the Policy Roadmap. Focusing by region ensures tailored approaches that consider local ecology and culture. Regional priorities for the next phase of the initiative include private forest land in the Southeast, one of the largest current contributors to the carbon sink; planning for wildfire and other climatic changes on federal and private land in the West; and focusing on the carbon storage potential of cropland and grassland in the Midwest, the heart of the U.S. agriculture sector.

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