Today, the U.S. Senate is working on a bipartisan climate solution that could help future generations avoid the worst effects of climate change and help farmers across America today. Our nation’s farmers and ranchers always have been a symbol of hard-working Americans, an essential part of our food supply, and a bellwether for our economy. Thanks to well-crafted, market-based legislation with broad private-sector and environment support, soon they’ll be growing climate solutions too.
If enacted, the framework for voluntary climate action would open the door for farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to supplement their income by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering emissions in soil and biomass.
For as long as we’ve known about climate change, it’s been clear that plants are part of the solution: plants are the oldest and most efficient mechanisms for pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Over the past few decades a patchwork of programs and markets have sprouted up around the country to match demand for carbon emissions reductions with supply. However, no federal program exists to verify protocols and establish accounting methodologies for these markets. As a result, the transaction cost for utilizing these types of carbon offsets was too high, and markets were small.
The Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2020 solves this market failure by establishing a voluntary framework for certifying third-party credits, providing technical assistance to land managers, and establishing an Advisory Council of diverse environmental, agricultural, scientific, and business interests to help define the proper role for the federal government in these markets going forward.
It’s a big deal because of support from some of the biggest names in agriculture (e.g., Cargill, American Farm Bureau) and conservation (e.g. Audubon, The Nature Conservancy). The conservative proposal is sponsored by Republican Senators Mike Braun (IN) and Lindsey Graham (SC). It’s bipartisan and has drawn Democratic co-sponsors Debbie Stabenow (MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) because it is strong climate policy. These four senators should be congratulated for putting pen to paper on a commonsense solution that helps solve the climate challenge.
The climate bill would grow the market for a wide range of projects including land or soil carbon sequestration, livestock emissions reductions, reforestation, and improved grassland management, including prescribed grazing. Wisely, the climate bill keeps the door open to other activities that are deemed legitimate by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Advisory Council.
Indeed, the strength of the proposal is the focus on quantifying emissions reductions and sequestration, verifying that data, and assuring that carbon sequestration is permanent and better than the historic baseline.
This can work because offset credit and voluntary markets have overcome historic challenges and growing pains. The European system was plagued by fraud from credits offered by developing countries, and the Chicago Climate Exchange closed its doors due to a thin market. But times have changed. Companies are lining up in the race to achieve net zero emissions. Smartphones have enabled offset producers to use GPS-tagged photos of what’s growing on the ground while satellites verify from the sky. The approach could help speed up a race-to-the-top in environmental performance.
This voluntary framework approach will increase transparency and accountability, increase investment in offsets and a carbon-focused economy, and further decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It will help protect investors and help assure fair and orderly voluntary carbon transactions. And it is a federal approach that complements what states are doing to tackle climate change. The federal government won’t dictate how carbon emissions will be reduced, but individuals, businesses, and capital markets will have better information on who is active in this space.
Climate hawks should be encouraged by the laser-focused and limited federal effort envisioned by the Growing Climate Solutions Act. Big government should not by synonymous with big climate action. By facilitating many more people and companies to take matters into their own hands and get credit for implementing best carbon management practices—or financing those practices—the scale of the solution grows. Passing this bill will not be the final step in solving the climate problem, but it is an important step to take now. And action in the agriculture sector could be mirrored for other sectors too.
By democratizing and decentralizing climate action we can feel better about the decisions we make in the store or when shopping online. And, once again, we’ll have America’s farmers and ranchers to thank.
Charles Hernick is the Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501c(3) organization committed to educating the public and influencing the national conversation about clean energy, including through the Clean Energy Forward campaign.