Charles Hernick | Let America’s farmers grow climate solutions

Let America’s farmers grow climate solutions

Charles Hernick

The Hill

May 14, 2021

Spring planting has Americans putting their hands in the soil again. And knowing our bountiful lands could be an important defense against climate change makes our fruited plains and amber waves of grain even more beautiful.

Recently, the Growing Climate Solutions Act was reintroduced by Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) with unprecedented bipartisan support. This landmark climate legislation was co-sponsored by 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats — nearly half of the U.S. Senate.

Fittingly, on Earth Day it passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee by a unanimous vote and was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act is based on a simple idea: make sure that the men and women who grow America’s crops and manage our forests and ranches can be rewarded if they reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is a popular idea, endorsed by over 60 leading agriculture and environmental organizations. Recent polling shows that 77 percent of all voters — and 72 percent of Republicans — favor its goals.

Despite what critics claim, the failed carbon exchanges from a decade ago have been replaced by robust, technology-driven marketplaces backed up by data-rich, precision agriculture, high-resolution satellite imagery, and blockchain.

Billions of private sector dollars are bolstering demand on carbon solutions, including carbon offsets. Even during the pandemic, companies of all types set aggressive emissions reductions goals at a pace never seen before. Our small family farms and rural communities can help — and should be rewarded — for doing so.

The hard truth is that it is technically unfeasible for many industries to make an immediate dent in their emissions. Making concrete and steel is energy intensive and there are no cost-effective substitutes for fossil-fuel based airplane jet fuel. At least not yet. Last year Congress passed the Clean Industrial Technology Act to help overcome these challenges, but cost competitive solutions are at least a decade away. Until then, Delta Airlines’ commitment to carbon neutrality requires offsets.

Buying carbon offset credits is a direct, scientifically sound, and accessible way to reduce greenhouse gases today, while developing ways to lower emissions for the future. The Growing Climate Solutions Act makes sure that buying credits can also support an American farmer.

Those who claim only big business will benefit from this system misinterpret the purpose of the bill. It does not create a new carbon market. It makes the intricacies of an existing, highly complex and technical system more user-friendly to the average farmer without degrading its integrity.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act also makes accredited third-party verifiers accessible, so that smaller farming operations reliant on U.S. Department of Agriculture extension services can participate as easily as large agribusiness with armies of consultants. If the bill becomes law, many small farms will be able to diversify their sources of income, compete better with the big farms, and “keep the family farm.”

In addition to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, the farming techniques and land stewardship rewarded by the Growing Climate Solutions Act often improve crop yields, critical habitat, water quality and soil health — bringing additional benefits to the local community.

The potential for cheating in a market that trades on invisible carbon emissions is a legitimate concern. The Growing Climate Solutions Act deals with the issue head-on by mitigating conflicts of interest and self-dealing and improving transparency. For example, carbon brokers, the middlemen between farmers who sell carbon credits and the businesses who buy them, earn modest margins, typically less than 10 percent. At one Maryland farm, where carbon credits were being sold for $16.50 per ton, $1.50 went to the broker and $15 to the farmer. With broader participation in the market, and a USDA empowered to help steer farmers to good, experienced actors, this process will foster more competition, lower the cost of trading, and keep brokers honest on both sides.

Some believe that instead of markets, Uncle Sam should prod farmers into sustainability and foot the bill. These proposals underestimate our farmers and the power of the free market. America’s farmers are exceptionally hardworking, inventive, and entrepreneurial. A robust market that highly values efforts to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will encourage new emissions-capturing innovations much more quickly and effectively than any government handout could.

The need for climate action is urgent. Access to better, more transparent markets enabled by the USDA for our farmers, foresters, and ranchers is fighting climate change with both fists. The Growing Climate Solutions Act matches farmers interest and financial needs with private capital and demand for carbon reductions. That’s a win from sea to shining sea.

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