Federal Policies to Advance Natural Climate Solutions
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Background and Context
Climate change presents enormous challenges for America’s agriculture and forestry sectors—but it can also create important new opportunities. This is because strategies for increasing the quantity of carbon stored in plants, trees, and soils, and reducing emissions from agriculture and forestry—often called “natural climate solutions”—are a critical part of the wide portfolio of actions needed to reduce carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere and limit the pace and scale of warming this century. Emerging markets for carbon credits, corporate sustainability initiatives, and new government incentive programs could generate tens of billions of dollars per year in new investment for working farm and forest lands within a decade. Natural climate solutions are particularly attractive as a climate mitigation strategy because many of them, implemented effectively, will deliver valuable co-benefits in terms of wildlife habitat, recreation amenities, and air and water quality—often while also increasing resilience to the damaging effects of climate change itself.
Despite growing recognition of these benefits, however, and an increased sense of urgency around climate action more generally, formidable hurdles stand in the way of fully realizing the economic and environmental potential of farm- and forest-based solutions. Markets for carbon credits are still maturing, as concern about poor credit quality in some early carbon offset programs demonstrates. Improving systems for monitoring, reporting, and verifying the carbon benefits of different land management practices is critical and will need to be addressed. Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners are not in the habit of viewing climate opportunities as part of their core business model, and most lack the time, expertise, and financial resources to assess these opportunities or take the implementation steps required—from changing long- standing management practices and modifying their operations to tracking and quantifying the carbon benefits that result. Many of these changes require large upfront investments—in labor, equipment, and seeds or saplings, for example— that create business risk that must be overcome, especially in the context of rapidly evolving carbon markets and policy and regulatory landscapes.
BPC’s Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force came together in early 2021 to develop practical proposals for tackling these challenges while also increasing awareness of the substantial benefits a robust national commitment to advancing natural climate solutions could deliver—not only in terms of meeting climate policy goals, but in terms of spurring investment in the long- term productivity and resilience of farm and forest lands and the prosperity of rural communities, including rural communities of color and those who have been historically underserved by federal programs. We believe the federal government has a tremendous opportunity over the next several years to put in place policies and programs that will accelerate the development of robust and transparent carbon markets; address the accounting challenges and durability issues associated with natural climate solutions; enlist farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners as key partners in climate change mitigation; and create effective incentives for a full range of greenhouse gas reduction and carbon sequestration options.
This report summarizes the task force’s main outputs to date: a set of guiding principles and 24 initial recommendations organized according to six policy “themes” that together provide a framework for a comprehensive national approach to natural climate solutions. All these outputs reflect agreements reached after several months of spirited dialogue among task force members and BPC staff, as well as robust consultation with leading scientific experts and technical advisors.
Task Force Goals
Individual task force members bring a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds to these issues, but we share a common view that America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners can play a pivotal role in addressing climate change, both by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations and by adopting practices and technologies that increase the amount of carbon stored in soils, forests, and wood products. The aim of the task force is to expand these opportunities by:
- Fostering open and active dialogue with recognized leaders from government, agriculture, forestry, conservation, and rural communities
- Serving as a resource to policymakers and elevating bipartisan efforts to advance natural climate solutions
- Developing recommendations for scaling public and private investments in farm- and forest-based carbon storage and emission reduction measures while reducing barriers to voluntary stewardship practices
In developing recommendations, the task force was guided by four principles that we believe are critical to the effectiveness of farm- and forest-based climate strategies and build on our nation’s track record of effective public- private cooperation in the forestry and agricultural sectors. Our policy recommendations are designed to be:
- Voluntary and incentive-based. We believe policies that reward stewardship practices and provide tools and options so that producers and landowners can adopt the strategies that best align with their other management and business goals are the most likely to be effective.
- Supportive of the needs of producers and working lands. Natural climate solutions can be implemented in ways that support working farms, ranches, forests, and production systems while improving productivity and efficiency, and advancing other economic and environmental goals.
- Conducive to partnership and collaboration as the best way to address diverse challenges and priorities. America’s agricultural producers and forest landowners operate at different scales, face different constraints, and have different priorities. Cooperation and collaboration between individual landowners, industry and farm groups, conservation organizations, and federal, state, local, and tribal authorities will be critical to develop natural climate solutions that work for a wide range of stakeholders.
- Compatible with the goals of accountability and transparency. Ultimately, the ability to track and quantify benefits and address concerns about the durability of soil- and forest-based carbon sequestration is critical to the business case for investment in natural climate solutions. Clear and widely accepted accounting methods, together with ongoing efforts to
improve related measurement metrics, are critically important—not only to the integrity of future carbon markets but for the growing number of corporations that have embraced environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs and ambitious climate goals.
Task Force Process
To identify key challenges and develop pragmatic, actionable policy recommendations, the task force worked with BPC staff to hold a series of working sessions throughout 2021. Topics covered included:
- The role of existing federal programs that target natural climate solutions
- Quantification and monitoring challenges, especially for large-scale projects
- The state of voluntary carbon markets and current approaches to quality assurance
- Barriers, risks, and opportunities for addressing wildfire risks and protecting public lands
- Policy considerations with respect to issues of land access, tenure, and ownership
BPC staff also convened a panel of leading scientific experts and technical advisors to advise the task force on the state of scientific understanding with respect to issues of quantification, durability, and effectiveness for natural climate solutions. These topics were explored in depth at two additional technical workshops that examined current understanding of the land-based carbon cycle and related implications for carbon accounting methods and policy design.
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