Enlisting farms, fields, and forests in the fight against climate change, part 1 • The National Wildlife Federation Blog

Part 1: Enhancing equity and environmental justice

Working lands and the people who steward them are facing dire threats from climate change—but they’re also uniquely poised to take a leadership role in climate mitigation. Farmers, family forest owners, and ranchers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration by changing their practices or adopting new ones. Such practices can mitigate climate change by improving soil health, reducing fuel consumption, and sustainably managing forest and rangelands. Not only do these changes reduce emissions, but often have co-benefits for wildlife, water, and agricultural productivity.

In response to this opportunity, incentives to support producers and landowners have grown in abundance in both the public and private sector. Some of these incentives, such as the voluntary conservation programs overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, have existed for decades to promote environmentally sound (and often cost-effective) practices in working lands. The Environmental Quality Incentives Programfor example, offers cost share payments for implementing climate-smart mitigation practices such as no-till agriculture, cover cropping, silvopasture, prescribed burning, and infrastructure for rotational grazing practices. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)which pays a yearly rental rate to private landowners for removing marginal agricultural lands from row crop production, is another option for farmers and ranchers to improve their bottom line while protecting and restoring natural resources. Federal agriculture conservation programs and other federal and state programs can often also promote climate adaptation practices.

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An immature gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). In the Coastal Plains of the southeastern US, the gopher tortoise burrows in sandy soils. Prescribed burning of longleaf pine and other forests can create the open habitat this species relies upon while also supporting other forest management goals. Photo credit: Randy Browning, USFWS

Voluntary carbon markets offer another new pathway to reduce costs for landowners interested in implementing climate-smart practices. These mechanisms allow companies or other entities to purchase “carbon credits,” typically to offset their own emissions. Carbon markets can be mandated through regulations, as in the case of California’s compliance market, or voluntary and unregulated. (Note that these markets have significant shortcomings, which we’ll discuss below.) Tax incentives to reward landowners for carbon sequestration and storage ton-by-ton could be advanced to create parity with existing incentives in the tax code for capture and underground storage of carbon by industrial facilities. Additionally, landowners may opt to take advantage of permanent conservation easementsvoluntary agreements that prevent the conversion of land—including working lands—in perpetuity, in exchange for tax benefits. Although these programs are structured to preserve broader conservation values, they can be thought of as one more option to ensure that carbon uptake and storage can continue for decades to come.

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Intercropping, the practice of growing multiple crops together in the same area, can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers – a major source of emissions from the agriculture sector – while enhancing the ability of soil to hold moisture and providing habitat for beneficial insects. Photo credit: Preston Keres

Without careful design, incentives designed to reduce emissions in working lands may leave family farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners behind—especially those that have been historically underrepresented and excluded from assistance programs. There are a few ways this could occur:

To address these issues, policymakers should:

  1. Focus their energy on public policy efforts on greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but ensure that carbon markets and offset schemes have high integrity where they occur. Voluntary carbon markets should not distract from the broader, sometimes transformational changes needed to achieve our goals on climate change mitigation and adaptation or environmental and climate justice. Without rigorous standards and third-party verification, credits will not likely reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions–and indeed, they could even undermine mitigation efforts. Regulatory oversight may be needed.
  2. Make government programs more accessible and reduce barriers to participation. Increased outreach to farmers, ranchers and private landowners, particularly under-served and small-scale producers and improved government materials will enhance climate change mitigation efforts. This could include:
  3. Design government programs with equity in mind. When it comes to financial incentives, design programs to ensure that small landowners will be able to participate—for example, by providing tiered payments, or subsidizing entry into carbon markets for small-scale producers. If, however, minority producers and landowners are unaware of, distrustful of, or excluded from these programs, it may inadvertently reinforce existing gaps in wealth or rates of land ownership.

In Part 2, we’ll outline concerns related to biodiversity and offer recommendations to promote wildlife-friendly climate action on working lands.

Special thanks to Ben Knuth for his helpful feedback and contributions on this blog series.

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