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Ag role in climate mitigation: Net-zero emissions

The president directed the USDA to recommend a climate strategy for agriculture and forestry within 150 days.

Before signing an executive order on fighting climate change, President Biden said on Wednesday that mitigation efforts would include net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the agricultural sector, now responsible for 10% of U.S. emissions. “We see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process,” said Biden without suggesting how.

The president directed the USDA to recommend a climate strategy for agriculture and forestry within 150 days. The effort would begin with 60 days of consultation with landowners, farmers, conservation groups, and other interested parties on how to encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart practices that result in verifiable carbon sequestration and reductions in carbon emissions and that produce biofuels and bioproducts.

“The executive order outlines broad goals without details of how they will be achieved,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We stand ready to work with the administration on science-based, voluntary, and market-driven programs.” The AFBF is part of a coalition that favors addressing the climate crisis using tax credits and private-sector tools such as carbon markets.

Other proposals include creating a “carbon bank” at the USDA to pay farmers a guaranteed price per ton for carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions. Some advocates say the USDA could be a clearinghouse for information on agricultural practices that reduce emissions, conduct research on “best practices,” or certify third-party agents who would verify carbon sequestration for trading.

“Climate change is an immense, complex crisis with far-reaching consequences,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. “By offering farmers a seat at the table, they can ensure that programs are feasible and beneficial for all parties involved.”

Farm Belt opposition helped defeat an Obama administration proposal a decade ago for a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases. Attitudes have softened in recent years, though a survey sponsored by Iowa State University Extension found that Iowa farmers are skeptical that about earning money by capturing greenhouse gases in the soil. Some 45% were uncertain if they should reduce greenhouse gas emissions on their farms.

The executive order called for establishment of a Civilian Climate Corps to conserve and restore public lands and set a goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. land and oceans.

At the White House, Biden said the order would “supercharge our administration’s ambitious plan to confront the existential threat that is climate change.” He repeatedly said climate mitigation would create additional U.S. jobs.

“This is a case where … dealing with this existential threat to the planet and increasing our economic growth are one and the same,” said Biden.

The “climate crisis” will be at the center of the administration’s national security and foreign policy plans, said the executive order. In addition, it said that environmental and economic justice “are key considerations in how we govern.”

A White House fact sheet on the executive orders on climate change is available here.

The executive order on “tackling the climate crisis” is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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