Land-Sector Actions in U.S. Climate Policy—and at the UNFCCC

June 8, 2015 | 2:46 pm
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

In early April I wrote a blog post on the U.S. INDC (“Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”) which was submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I focused on how it treated the land sector (agriculture and forests). In mid-April this analysis, along with similar consideration of the INDCs of Mexico and the European Union, was written up in a White Paper, and a few days ago we presented the results of this White Paper at a UNFCCC side event in Bonn.

Later in April, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senior Presidential Advisor Brian Deese announced the Department of Agriculture’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry. In this blog post I’ll describe those building blocks, as well as the elements of the President’s Climate Action Plan (released in June 2013) that relate to the land sector.

The ten “building blocks” announced by Secretary Vilsack are:

  • Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and related approaches. This would include increasing the area under no-till to more than 40 million hectares by 2025.
  • Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.
  • Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters and other techniques to reduce methane emissions, including the installation of 500 new digesters over the next 10 years.
  • Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions, including the goal of enrolling 160,000 hectares of lands with high greenhouse gas benefits in the CRP.
  • Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 1.6 million hectares.
  • Private Forest Growth and Retention: Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 400,000 additional hectares of working landscapes, and employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 0.8 million hectares annually in new or revised plans.
  • Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 2,000 hectares each year.
  • Promotion of Wood Products: Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel.
  • Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values. The effort aims to plant an additional 9,000 trees in urban areas on average each year through 2025.
  • Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency on farms and in rural areas through various programs.

The Building Blocks strategy is based on five principles:

  • Voluntary and incentive-based:
  • Focused on multiple economic and environmental benefits
  • Meet the needs of producers
  • Cooperative and focused on building partnerships
  • Assess progress and measure success

USDA estimates that taken together, these steps will reduce net emissions and increase sequestration by more than 120 million tons of CO2eq/year by 2025. This would be equal to about 2% of current U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It didn’t detail how much is expected to result from each program, or from reduced emissions compared to increased sequestration.

The land sector has major potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The land sector has major potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While most of these steps extend or go beyond the land-sector steps announced in the June 2013 Climate Action Plan, the CAP also included other kinds of agricultural or forest actions. These included:

  • Preserving the Role of Forests in Mitigating Climate Change, working to identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests, as well as other critical landscapes including grasslands and wetlands, in the face of a changing climate.
  • Identifying Vulnerabilities of Key Sectors to Climate Change, reporting on the impacts of climate change on other key sectors and strategies to address them, with priority efforts including food supplies, oceans, and coastal communities.
  • Conserving Land and Water Resources, implementing climate-adaptation strategies that promote resilience in fish and wildlife populations, forests and other plant communities, freshwater resources, and the ocean; as well as directing federal agencies to identify and evaluate additional approaches to improve our natural defenses against extreme weather, protect biodiversity and conserve natural resources in the face of a changing climate, and manage our public lands and natural systems to store more carbon.
  • Maintaining Agricultural Sustainability, building on the existing network of federal climate- science research and action centers to create seven new Regional Climate Hubs to deliver tailored, science-based knowledge to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners and work with partners to support climate resilience.
  • Reducing Wildfire Risks, working to make landscapes more resistant to wildfires, which are exacerbated by heat and drought conditions resulting from climate change, and expanding and prioritizing forest and rangeland restoration efforts in order to make natural areas and communities less vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
  • Providing a Toolkit for Climate Resilience that centralizes access to data-driven resilience tools, services, and best practices, including access to the U.S. Geological Survey’s “visualization tool” to assess the amount of carbon absorbed by landscapes.

The Climate Action Plan also included actions to reduce emissions or increase sequestration in other countries. Most notable of these with respect to the land sector were continued support for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus related pro-forest policies) and negotiating global free trade in environmental goods and services, with the participation of countries accounting for 90% of global trade in environmental goods.

These are all worthy initiatives and will contribute to meeting the 2020 and 2025 U.S. emission reduction pledges. But as our recent analysis shows, there is tremendous additional potential to both reduce emissions and increase sequestration in the land use sector, in areas such as reducing the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer (which leads to dead zones such as in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as powerful as CO2), and encouraging policies and practices that will lead the American food system to produce and meet the demand for more healthful foods, which would also result in lower emissions, as pointed out by the recent Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.)

In the Climate Action Plan, the Administration looked forward to this year’s negotiations, stating that “The 2015 climate conference is slated to play a critical role in defining a post-2020 trajectory. We will be seeking an agreement that is ambitious, inclusive and flexible.” Those are certainly important goals for how the land sector will be included in the Paris agreement, recognizing its specificities but also the fact that it accounts for a fourth of global emissions, according to the IPCC. A good starting point would be to see substantive provisions on land use in the draft text that will come out of the Bonn UNFCCC negotiations at the end of this week.