Monday, January 28, 2008

Ag Offsets: Claiming the Credit Agriculture Deserves

Hello and welcome to a blog dedicated to discussing the potential and politics of agriculture "offsets" within mandatory climate change legislation.

What are agriculture offsets? Simply put, agriculture has a number of ways to reduce existing greenhouse gases (GHG) from the atmosphere (by storing it in soils and trees) as well as avoid future emissions by capturing methane from manure and using precision ag fertilizer application. None of this is in dispute -- what IS in dispute is whether agriculture's ability to reduce or avoid GHG emissions will be counted in law that will create the carbon/climate market.

Before we get too far -- first let me say a few words about what this blog is and is not designed to do.
  1. This is not a place to debate climate science. Quite frankly, that issue doesn't matter because there will be a climate change law in the next 2 years (likely) just ask the multitude of corporations who have all openly supported taking mandatory action to reduce GHG emissions -- action that will regulate themselves. Corporations are now shaping what the climate law will be to their advantage -- I hope agriculture as an industry will engage in this process as well because it has so much to gain.
  2. This blog IS a place to discuss the science of soil carbon sequestration, methane capture from manure, nitrogen precision application and the ways to measure, monitor and verify GHG reductions that come from agricultural conservation practices in general
  3. This blog IS a place to discuss the politics of the climate change law and how it can be managed to benefit the agriculture industry.
  4. This blog IS a place to hear from some of the farmer leaders that I've been working with and learning from for over 2 years on the ag offsets issue and get connected with soil scientists and ag economists who have been looking at the potential benefits and costs of an ag offset market.
So - you may wonder why I'm doing this -- what's my angle -- and my background? Fair questions. I came into this issue in a most unusual way. I first learned about all that agriculture can do to reduce GHG emissions when I started working for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) back in 1999. As a congressional staffer, you have the luxury of getting to listen and learn from a whole host of really smart people -- and I got briefed from folks ranging from Kansas State University soil scientists to USDA to environmental groups like Environmental Defense and The Nature Conservancy. When you get a consistent picture from a wide variety of sources like this, it makes an impression.

While I was working for the Senator -- I drafted two bills for him which would have created incentives for farmers domestically to adopt practices like no-till that we know take carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas) out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. The second bill was an international one and would have created tax incentives for companies who helped preserve rainforests in developing countries (wouldn't we all like to see Brazil keep its forests!!)

Working on these bills and a few amendments for the Senator, I learned a lot about the politics of this issue as well. Odd as it seems, most of the environmental groups did not -- and still do not want to give credit to agricultural practices and products (like ethanol) that either reduce GHG or take those emissions out of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, most in the agriculture policy world at that time were not interested in this issue either -- seeing it as merely linked to "Kyoto" or later "Al Gore" and to higher energy costs that would outweigh any small benefit.

I stopped working for the Senator in 2003 and since went on to continue this work for the environmental group Environmental Defense -- because I was so impressed with their focus on solutions rather than traditional environmentalist politics. Now I am working as a consultant on this same set of issues -- working with clients to get ready for the carbon market to come -- and claim their rightful credit in the system that is being designed as we speak.

Over the years, the climate change issue has picked up steam (pardon the pun) and resonates more with the public than ever before. You can't hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine or watch a TV newscast without seeing some type of climate related story. And, although I said this is not a place to debate the science, it is important to note that scientists have been increasing both their consensus and their confidence in the climate science as they see it. All of these factors have led many corporations who used to oppose mandatory action to reduce GHG emissions, now to openly support such action. Below is a chart that shows the corporate logos of the companies that now support a mandatory cap-trade policy for GHG emissions:

A picture really is worth a thousand words. With companies like these all supporting mandatory climate legislation on top of all the environmental groups, it is only a matter of when and what will be passed -- it is NOT a matter of whether a mandatory limit on GHG will be passed into law.

Once you realize this fact, and you also know that estimates say the carbon market (which is short for all the greenhouse gases) could provide roughtly $15 billion annually to the agriculture industry -- ON TOP OF THEIR EXISTING CROPS NOT INSTEAD OF THEM, you start to see how critical it is to grab hold of this opportunity and shape it in ways that will help cut our dependence on foreign oil and infuse rural America with a whole new "green" industry. If done right, it really doesn't matter if you don't believe in climate science -- the benefits that could arise from a market that pays farmers to grow more renewable energy are huge.

But as I mentioned before, this opportunity is under attack -- mainly from the more traditional environmental groups. What I still can't get over is that most of the farmers I work with think I'm too "green" and yet I'm the biggest critic you are likely to find of the environmentalist community as a whole. But since farm organizations have not been at the forefront of this issue, it has been shaped, negatively, by those who want to use the climate issue to "punish" industry rather than solve problems.

The good news is there is still time to grab hold of the climate change momentum and use it to terrific ends for agriculture by establishing an unfettered ag offset market. I'll talk more in later posts about what counts as an offset and how you measure, monitor, verify, etc -- but for now -- please accept my e-invitation to join in the discussion . . . and add your insights, comments, questions and political connections to the cause of claiming the credit for agriculture that it richly deserves on this issue.

Til next time,


Anonymous said...

Thanks for setting this up, Sara. It is being read, I just haven't had much time to put into following all the threads, what with end-of-month activities and such. Bruce

Gerald Talbert said...

Great blog! How do you interpret the term, "permanent" in the Liberman-Warner bill as it would pertain to ag and forestry offset credits or allowances? Really permanent? And permanent for whom: buyer or seller?

Gerald Talbert