House Democrats are proposing a sweeping plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that calls for major increases in land retirement as well as conservation incentives on working lands to keep carbon in the soil.
The Climate Crisis Action Plan, which serves as a blueprint for what Democrats would like to do if they win control of Congress and the White House in November, also calls for replacing the Renewable Fuel Standard with a low carbon fuel standard similar to what is already in place in California.
The plan envisions biofuels serving as a bridge to a future when all vehicles are electric or otherwise produce no greenhouse gas emissions. The plan calls for all new vehicles to be zero emissions by 2035.
The overall goal of the 547-page Democratic plan, developed by the majority staff of a special House committee, is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by 2050.
“Congress should dramatically increase investments to support the efforts of America’s farmers and ranchers to employ climate stewardship practices,” the plan says.
“This federal commitment to farmers should include more funding for Farm Bill conservation programs and expanded financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers, with a focus on climate mitigation and resilience.”
By relying on a combination of incentives and imposition of federal energy standards, the plan diverges sharply from the Obama administration’s unsuccessful cap-and-trade legislation, which would have forced polluters to cut emissions to purchase credits generated by other sources, including farm conservation practices. The new plan also is far less ambitious than the Green New Deal proposed by some progressives last year.
Analysts with ClearView Energy Partners said in a note to subscribers that the plan, which includes investing in agriculture as one of 12 “pillars,” is essentially a “political document” that can "provide a lot of political ‘cover’ by allowing different (lawmakers) to emphasize different features.”
The plan includes a series of proposals for promoting “climate-smart activities in working lands programs,” including USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Security Program and Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
EQIP directly subsidizes the cost of purchasing equipment and implementing conservation practices. CSP provides payments over at least five years to reward farmers for practices that conserve soil and water and protect water quality. RCPP helps funds regional conservation projects.
The recommendation dovetails with a key proposal in former Vice President Joe Biden’s climate and rural development policies, which propose to “dramatically expand and fortify the pioneering” CSP.
The plan specifically suggests the creation of CSP practice bundles, or groups of practices, that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. Use of practice bundles can allow farmers to qualify for higher CSP payments.
Another recommendation, praised by The Fertilizer Institute, which represents fertilizer makers, says Congress should specifically act to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer usage by, among other things, expanding use of a USDA conservation practice standard for nutrient management. The standard "helps farmers focus on the '4Rs' (right source, right rate, right time, and right place) through technical assistance, education and outreach, and development of precision agricultural systems and technology," the plan says.
The plan also calls for “significantly” expanding the Conservation Reserve Program and says USDA should start considering “carbon sequestration, climate adaptation, and biodiversity benefits” in managing enrollments.
The plan recommends increasing CRP rental rates, which would mark a reversal from the 2018 farm bill, which put limits on the rates to discourage higher quality land from being taken out of production.
The plan doesn’t mention that expanding CRP could increase prices for corn and other commodities, but the proposal comes at a time when there is new interest in such set-aside programs to pull the farm economy out of what is projected to a long-term slump.
Georgia Rep. Austin Scott, who is competing to be the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, told Agri-Pulse in a recent interview that the 2018 farm bill needed to be rewritten and suggested a larger CRP as one way to boost farm income.
The plan stops short of proposing specific spending allocations for farm bill programs, but cites bills such as the Climate Stewardship Act, a measure proposed in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and in the House by Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M.
The bill would mandate $7 billion each for CSP and EQIP while increasing the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays to retire environmentally sensitive land, to 40 million acres by 2030.
Under the 2018 farm bill, EQIP has authorized funding of $1.8 billion for fiscal 2021. The cost of CSP will be gradually reduced from over $2 billion this year to $1 billion annually.
The 2018 law gradually increased the acreage cap on CRP from 24 million to 27 million acres in 2023.
The plan also recommends using the federal crop insurance program to address climate change by offering farmers premium discounts for practices such as cover crops.
“With approximately 90% of cropland covered by crop insurance, using the existing infrastructure of crop insurance could dramatically increase the number of farmers adopting climate stewardship practices,” the plan says.
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Other recommendations in the plan include creating something like a “climate-based producer” certification program that would allow farmers to meet carbon reduction goals set by corporations.
Qualifying farmers “would implement certain practices from a list of options specified by USDA that reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions or increase carbon sequestration," the plan says.
Other recommendations include a proposal for grants to state and local governments to increase conservation practices on land that farmers lease rather than own. The plan also recommends new incentives for farmers to transition to organic agriculture.
Ethanol industry groups welcomed the inclusion of biofuels in the plan. The low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) would apply to both liquid and non-liquid fuels. The carbon intensity of fuels would be based on a lifecycle assessment that would include an analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming practices.
The plan says the standard should include “guardrails” to ensure that production of biofuels doesn’t encourage breaking of new cropland.
“For renewable liquid fuels, the LCFS should reward entities in the value chain, including farmers and producers, that use climate-smart practices that reduce carbon emissions, store soil carbon, and reduce nitrous oxide emissions,” the plan says.
The RFS works more simply by requiring refiners to blend minimum amounts of ethanol and biodiesel on an annual basis.
Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor said that biofuels account for nearly 80% of all the carbon reductions credited under California’s standard. The carbon intensity rating of ethanol has dropped by 33% since 2011, she said.
"We appreciate the hard work of lawmakers seeking to accelerate our progress toward a healthy climate and are pleased that this report recognizes that a zero-carbon future must include all clean transportation solutions — from ethanol to electric vehicles,” she said.
Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, warned that there were still key details still to be worked out, including requirements for the lifecycle assessments.
“The big picture presented in the report is promising, but the devil is always in the details — and those details won’t be hammered out until the committees of jurisdiction begin crafting legislation based on these recommendations,” he said.
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