[co-author: Shawn Whites]
The U.S. Senate recently passed the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act (Act) by a 92-8 vote to help American farmers, ranchers and private forest owners adopt, and ultimately profit from, activities that reduce or sequester greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Among its key provisions, the Act directs the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program (USDA Certification Program) to “provide transparency, legitimacy, and informal endorsement of third-party verifiers and technical service providers that help private landowners generate carbon credits through a variety of agriculture and forestry related practices.” The Act now moves to the House where its companion legislation similarly enjoys bipartisan support but no clear timeline for a floor vote.
The Act aims to incentivize and aide smaller, and sometimes less sophisticated, agribusinesses access carbon markets by reducing technical barriers to entry, including a lack of trustworthy information regarding credible third-party experts and the types of activities—and their associated costs—capable of generating carbon offsets. Under the USDA Certification Program, for example, USDA would identify a subset of states and private sector organizations that provide technical assistance or certification programs governing activities that generate carbon offsets or credits. These include activities that reduce GHG emissions or sequester carbon dioxide through direct land and soil sequestration, fuel choice and use, livestock and grassland management, on-farm energy generation, feedstock production, fertilizer and nutrient use, reforestation and sustainable forest management, ecosystem protection and restoration, and private land conservation programs. The Act also calls for the creation of a website to assist farmers and ranchers to easily access information to generate carbon credits.
Reflective of its bipartisan appeal, the Act’s core programs are voluntary in nature. The Act does not require farmers or ranchers to develop more sustainable practices or participate in carbon offset markets. For example, third-party assistance or verification providers would self-certify for coverage under the USDA Certification Program, a process that triggers requirements to “maintain expertise” in science-based approaches to address GHG emissions and carbon sequestration.
If signed into law, the Act could eventually encourage greater numbers of rural farmers and landowners to adopt farming and land practices resulting in measurable, verifiable GHG emission reductions and sequestration, which they could then monetize through carbon offsets. Doing so could thus increase the supply of “American-made” nature-based carbon offsets, for which there is high market demand. For these reasons, many agricultural and environmental groups have praised the bill.
While the Act may foster more widespread participation in carbon offset markets and spur the development of climate-friendly operations throughout the agriculture and forestry industries, additional legislative incentives may be needed to help landowners and smaller businesses manage the oftentimes high up-front costs and risks they face in implementing more sustainable practices. We expect to see a continued focus on sustainable agriculture and biodiversity at upcoming international events, including this fall’s COP 15 UN Biological Diversity Convention and COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference.