Thursday, January 08, 2009

Administrative Atmosphere Changing for Climate Legislation

President-elect Obama and his top energy advisors have indicated that global climate change is second only to the economic crisis on the official environment and energy agenda, legitimizing it as a national concern and priority for action. Expressing and rallying support for his focus on climate change, Obama said “I support implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050” and, “when I am president… any nation that’s willing to join the cause of combating climate change will have an ally in the United States of America.”

While the President’s agenda will likely drive new climate change legislation, the process is not exactly simple. During the tenures of the 108th, 109th, and 110th Congresses, climate change legislation was drafted, introduced, amended, re-introduced, considered and tabled several times. The two most mature pieces of legislation from the last Congress (110th) provide a platform for discussion:
- The (Dingell-Boucher) Committee on Energy and Commerce Climate Change Legislation Discussion Draft (House) (not yet introduced)
- S.3036 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 (Senate) (passed in Committee with an amendment by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works)

The bills are relatively similar, lengthy and complicated pieces of legislation. Both establish a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the market. Although agriculture does contribute to GHG emissions, some researchers claim that only a small portion (about 10%) of the total GHG offset potential from agriculture is related to emissions reduction, and about 90% can be achieved from soil carbon sequestration. In the drafted legislation, agriculture as an industry is not regulated according to GHG emissions. Instead, it is treated according to its potential to offset emissions from other “capped” industries (i.e. importers of fossil fuels) which elect to pay for the offsets from sequestration, rather than reduce their emissions below the cap.

Offset Optimism: Soil Carbon Sequestration

The beautiful thing about soil carbon sequestration (as opposed to some other technology-intensive sequestration options) is that much of the technology is relatively simple and inexpensive. It also typically includes additional benefits, such as enhancing soil quality for long-term agronomic productivity and helping to control erosion. Offset allowances via soil carbon sequestration are already available for purchase from private companies such as the Carbon Farmers of America, the Chicago Climate Exchange and the National Carbon Offset Coalition, among others, local, national and international.

Optimism Offset… Concern and Criticism for Offset Allowances

Despite enthusiasm for sequestration opportunities, the concept of offset allowances is criticized for discouraging real action to reduce GHG emissions. Additionally, there is general acknowledgment of the finite capacity of soils to store carbon. Nevertheless, all major climate change discussions have included offset allowances as an important element, including the Kyoto Protocol. President-elect Obama lent his support for domestic offsets by saying "I will also develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating new opportunities for rural America to help solve the climate crisis."

A lack of data verifying sequestration of carbon in soil based on management practices enhances the unease and criticism of offsets. For instance, scientists generally agree that the conversion of native grassland vegetation to agriculture has released soil carbon stores across the globe. Linear thinking suggests that the reverse conversion of cropland to grassland would thereby sequester carbon, and indeed some research verifies this. However, other research refutes the generalization, indicating that site characteristics may be more important than land use in determining the carbon sequestration potential of cropland versus grassland. However, in the language of the current climate change legislation drafts, “practices that increase agricultural soil carbon sequestration” and “conversion of cropland to rangeland or grassland” are considered side by side, as though both provide equally viable offsets for GHG emissions. Perhaps more precise language regarding the efficacy and viability of land-use conversion as an offset strategy will support the overall concept of offsets as a part of the strategy to achieve anthropogenic GHG reductions.

Climate and Carbon and Ag… Bridging Science and Policy

The support suggested by President-elect Obama’s statements and the climate change bills awaiting discussion in the upcoming session of Congress might mean the US will soon see rapid progress on climate change legislation, and that the agriculture sector will have a substantial role in making it work. Soil carbon sequestration has been and will continue to be an important theme moving forward with both a domestic energy plan and new climate change legislation. It is incumbent on agronomists and crop and soil scientists to clarify the real capacity of agricultural practices for soil carbon sequestration, to inform legislators and address the concerns about its viability as an offset for GHG emissions. By forming relationships with their congressional representatives, ASA-CSSA-SSSA members working in this area improve the likelihood that lawmakers receive up-to-date, relevant information when the issues are considered at the federal level. The Science Policy Office exists to help members establish and maintain such relationships. Contact us to learn more about your role as a scientist in the political process.