Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Change Events in DC

Last month, the Science Policy Office attended many climate change events, such as the CQ-Roll Call Climate Change Conference on various aspects of global warming, in the context of the Waxman-Markey Bill (cuts carbon emissions 17% by 2020) and the Kerry-Boxer Bill, now before the Senate (increases cuts to 20% and reduces allowances). Later in October, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held three days of hearings on K-B. Sen. Kerry testified that his bill would balance the rising costs of farming in the Midwest by providing farmers extra income from carbon offsets and renewables production. USDA Secretary Vilsack submitted comments supporting this statement, assuring farmers and ranchers that such legislation will benefit them if quick action is taken. However, Bob Stallman, president of the Farm Bureau, stated that income to farmers from offsets will fail to make up for cost increases in food, fuel, and feed, crippling American agriculture.

It is generally accepted that legislation will change many aspects of business in the US, including agriculture. While much of the attention paid to agriculture and climate change focuses on offsets, the panelists at the Conference posited that it may be far more lucrative for farmers to produce renewable energy on the side, rather than offsetting carbon by resting land. For example, biogas produced from animal waste, grasses grown for cellulosic ethanol (also sequestering carbon dioxide), or wind turbines placed in the margins between fields can all provide added sources of income and/or energy. The Farm Bureau wants the USDA to assess whether potential revenue from offsets makes up for the increased costs to the farmer associated with those offsets. However, such studies have already been done.

Farmers are legitimately concerned that W-M makes no provisions for fossil fuel alternatives. Natural gas is a good alternative to oil, but is also used to produce fertilizer, and so its increased use as a fuel raises the price of synthetic fertilizer. More widespread employment of soil nutrient analysis would allow farmers to strategically fertilize, in many cases reducing the cost of fertilizer in their operations and the risk that nutrients will reach nearby bodies of water. There are also alternatives that can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed, such as chicken litter, although this can also cause problems with nutrient pollution. Efficiency is a relatively easy first step in addressing most aspects of climate change.

Many industries, including agriculture, are wary of the EPA, which has just issued their final Endangerment Findings on GHGs under the Clean Air Act. The Farm Bureau prefers to take their chances with legislation, but they are concerned that K-B leaves the Clean Air Act too powerful. According to the EPA, though, agriculture and forestry now sequester 11% of current GHGs and have the potential to offset upwards of 20%; there is much that can be done to clean up the responsible operations (mostly AFOs and CAFOs). Agriculture produces 7-8% of GHGs yearly.

This week, 25x’25, a coalition of farm leaders, conservationists, and industry, released a report that should help put this debate to rest. The study was conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Bio-Based Energy Analysis Group, which is composed of a varied group of researchers– agricultural economists, engineers, agronomists, and environmental scientists. They found that a cap and trade system with a “meaningful but moderate” carbon price and opportunities for agricultural offsets would net positive returns for farmers, even considering rising prices of inputs. This scenario offers significant carbon benefits and does not incentivize the conversion of agricultural land to forest. They compared several models, including one with EPA regulation instead of cap and trade. Farmers fared very poorly in this scenario, experiencing net losses and losing sixty million acres of cropland to forest.

I also saw Senator Bernie Sanders speak in person twice, and he gave a very poignant speech. He is one of the rare politicians who can reconcile agriculture with the environment in his state, supporting both. So I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the day, explaining why he thinks it’s necessary to take strong and swift action against climate change. “Let me remind people who might say that the vision I am outlining is too radical, I want you to think about December 8th, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, when President Roosevelt declared war against Japan. Within a year and a half . . . the United States had transformed its economy . . . [into wartime production]. We did that in a year and a half in the early 1940’s. So please do not tell me that in the year 2009 with all of the advanced technology out there that this country cannot lead the world in transforming our energy system . . ..”

No comments: