Forests, Agriculture, and Climate Change: Why the U.S. Needs Action, Not Just Accounting, in its INDC

April 3, 2015 | 2:21 pm
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

The United States has now told the world what it intends to do about climate change in the 2020s, by submitting its INDC (“Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”) to the United Nations. As we found in our report Halfway There? in January, the U.S.’ land sector – agriculture and forests – could be a big deal for the climate negotiations in Paris next December. Of course, our actions to reduce fossil fuels will be critical, but land use is important both as a source of global warming pollution and a way to take it back out of the atmosphere.

Overall, the U.S. INDC is quite transparent about its goal: a 26 to 28% reduction in global warming pollution. We’re clear on the baseline year (2005) and the target year (2025) for the reduction, and there are explanations of the steps to be taken in various sectors: electric power, transportation, industry, buildings, landfills and HFCs. While my UCS colleague Rachel Cleetus has shown how we could achieve substantially more than 28%, this level of ambition is considerable.

But, what do we intend to contribute to the global effort from our land? As far as one can tell from the INDC, not much. It’s clear that the land sector will be included in our greenhouse gas accounting, and that we’ll do it following the international scientific guidelines. We won’t try to count emissions reductions that are made by other countries but financed by U.S. aid or investment as part of our total.

All that is good to see. But it’s about accounting, not action. What will the U.S. actually do to reduce emissions from the land, or to increase its sequestration (basically, uptake of CO2 by forest growth), as part of its plan?

Changing fire dynamics and climate conditions are increasingly likely to result in some western forests failing to regenerate and being transformed into brush and grassland. Photo: Adam Markham.

Changing fire dynamics and climate conditions are increasingly likely to result in some western forests failing to regenerate and being transformed into brush and grassland. Photo: Adam Markham.

You just can’t tell from the INDC. Although the President’s Climate Action Plan in June 2013 talked a bit about digesters on dairy farms to reduce methane emissions (the majority of which come from ruminant livestock, especially cattle) and about preserving the current “sink” (stock of carbon) in our forests, none of that made it into the agreement President Obama reached with Chinese President Xi Jinping last fall, and there’s nothing about it in the INDC. There are descriptions of what we’re doing to reduce emissions from power plants, vehicles, landfills, buildings, appliances, equipment and HFCs. But on the agriculture and forest sectors, there are no specifics. Nothing on action, just on the accounting.

The same lack of attention to the land sector is found in the little-noticed Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions that the Administration released last Saturday (please see my update in the comments below). (Washington wisdom is that if you don’t want the press to pay attention to your announcement you should do it late on a Friday afternoon, but this release went one better). While the strategy acknowledges that agriculture is the largest source of U.S. methane emissions – 36% of our total — the only agricultural action described was encouraging the installation of biogas digesters on dairy farms. This is a good idea, but it’s only a minor part of the potential, since only 25% of our agricultural methane comes from dairy cattle, while 71% is from beef cattle.

This lack of attention to agriculture and forests is disappointing because the U.S. has great potential to reduce net land-sector emissions. For example:

  • Demand-side reductions related to our diet. The U.S. has one of the world’s highest per-capita levels of consumption of high-emissions foods, particularly beef. Reducing our consumption and our waste of these foods, and replacing them with low-emissions foods such as chicken, milk, eggs and plant products, would thus make a large contribution to reducing U.S. emissions, particularly of methane. These trends are already being seen, with a per-capita drop of 1/3 in U.S. beef consumption since the mid-1970s. But we could do a lot more, and in the process improve our health and reduce our mortality rate from heart disease and cancer.
  • Decreasing the over-use of fertilizer. We apply nitrogen fertilizer – both synthetic and manure – at levels that considerably exceed the absorption capacity of crops and soils. This overfertilization results in both water pollution that produces the “dead zones” in places like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, and the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that is 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. Reducing excessive fertilization is thus an option that both helps to reduce global warming pollution, and also improves water quality, fish habitat and public health.
  • Increasing sequestration by forests and soils. Reforestation, revegetation of other kinds of degraded ecosystems, and soil management that increases carbon levels in croplands, pastures and rangelands, have large potential in the United States. For example, UCS calculations based on GIS mapping of global reforestation potential indicate that over 1.3 million square kilometers of land in the U.S. could be reforested – over 14% of our surface area. This total excludes current forestland, current cropland and land that was never forested (which comprise about 7.5%, 28% and 50% of our land, respectively).
  • Preventing decreases in our current forest sink. Climate change endangers the current level of sequestration of U.S. forest, both directly through increasing temperatures and drought, and indirectly by increasing the chances of damaging events such as forest fires and outbreaks of pest insects like the mountain pine beetle. Forests currently absorb the equivalent of about 15% of the U.S.’ gross emissions. Actions to preserve this CO2 absorption from the atmosphere are just as important from the climate point of view as actions that reduce emissions – they have the same impact on “what the atmosphere sees.”

But none of these possibilities are even mentioned in the United States’ INDC.

There’s also a sentence in the accounting language that could have a perverse impact on how we manage our public lands. It’s this: “The United States may also exclude emissions from natural disturbances, consistent with available IPCC guidance.” If that’s just about truly unavoidable events like hurricanes hitting coastal forests in the Carolinas, it’s reasonable. But if it’ll be applied to, say, forest fires or mountain pine beetle outbreaks in the Rockies – “natural” disturbances in which human management plays a big role – then it could lead to doing a lot less than we should to preserve the carbon absorption capacity of our forests. If it’s not going to matter to our emissions total, why try to prevent it? As the saying goes, if it doesn’t get counted, then it doesn’t count.

The lack of any specific proposals to take action in the land sector is surprising, because other countries have been clear about what they’ll do. Ironically, it’s the developing countries that have released their INDCs (Mexico and Gabon) that have been most transparent about what they’ll do to transform their agriculture and forests, while developed countries like the U.S., Norway, Switzerland and the 28 nations of the European Union have said little. In the land sector, those with the greatest capacity to do something are saying the least about what they’re willing to do.

But they are giving excuses. E.g. this from the E.U.: “ Policy on how to include Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry into the 2030 greenhouse gas mitigation framework will be established as soon as technical conditions allow, and in any case before 2020.” It’ll be interesting to hear what those “technical conditions” are, and why they seem to apply in Europe but not in Mexico.

So, with respect to the land sector, there’s a real irony in the first set of INDCs that countries have submitted. Developing countries have said what they can do; so far, the U.S. and the other developed countries haven’t.

The INDCs submitted by the U.S. and other countries are opening bids in what will be a long negotiation, from now through the final night (or day, or following night) of the Paris COP. There’ll clearly be a gap in the total offered by the sum of all countries’ INDCs, compared to what science tells us is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. The U.S., through ambitious efforts to reduce emissions and increase sequestration from its agriculture and forests, can make a very large contribution to closing that gap and put us on the path to the global “negative emissions” that we’ll need in the second half of the 21st century. We’ll be looking for that as we move towards Paris.