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Climate policy: The time is now

By Staff | May 15, 2009

Climate change and renewable fuels are leading topics of discussion in local coffee shops, at Capitol Hill hearings, and at international conferences.

Right now, climate change is a dominant policy issue in Washington, D.C. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency announced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are a threat to public health. The U.S. Supreme Court gave EPA a directive to regulate GHG emissions. At the same time, Congress is considering a bill that would more clearly define the nation’s climate change policies, including which federal departments will have responsibility to implement programs.

Our nation’s climate change policy will affect everyone. Because of this, it is critical that federal policy be designed to work for the overall good of America. I have asked North Dakota’s congressional delegation to ensure agricultural offsets are included in any climate change legislation moving through Congress. Certain farming practices have scientifically been proven to “offset,” or capture, carbon dioxide in the soil – in effect, removing a greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

If EPA alone is responsible for addressing GHGs, the agency may well create a regulatory scheme that would not factor in the agricultural carbon credit benefits available (and already in use), and instead employ policies that would only increase production costs. EPA, by its historic nature, is geared toward penalties and fines to obtain compliance.

North Dakota Farmers Union members have long been concerned with the effects of climate change to agriculture and recognize the need to act. While multiple options exist for reducing GHG emissions, the flexibility of a cap and trade program holds the most promise in making actual reductions in GHG emissions while minimizing, to the extent possible, overall energy cost increases. A cap and trade program with an appropriately designed agricultural offset program would provide farmers and ranchers a means to contribute to overall GHG emission reductions through carbon sequestration and reduction of emissions from livestock operations, while at the same time providing income to producers. That income turns over in local communities.

Since launching the Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program in 2006, Farmers Union has become the largest aggregator of carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. To date, almost $9.5 million has been earned for the nearly 4,000 Farmers Union members nationwide who have voluntarily committed to a legally-binding contract to perform certain rules-based projects that are scientifically and independently verified. By using specific agricultural practices and prescribed land management, farmers and ranchers are being recognized for their achievements in capturing GHGs in the soil.

Our organization has learned valuable lessons on how to properly construct an offset program and hope Congress will utilize this hard work rather than try to re-create the wheel. Carbon sequestration projects on agricultural lands are the cheapest, easiest and most readily available means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a meaningful scale.

With an aggressive timetable to move climate change legislation through Congress, all of us need to urge lawmakers to support the following to ensure agriculture is allowed to play a significant role in helping reduce GHG emissions.

award the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to determine the parameters, promulgate regulations, and serve as the administrator of an agricultural and forestry offset program;

-recognize the early programs to sequester carbon dioxide and allow those programs to be eligible under a mandated cap and trade system;

-avoid placing artificial limits on the use of domestic agricultural offsets;

– base carbon sequestration rates upon science.

Some industries and individuals have raised objections to climate change policies, citing reasons from higher energy costs to questioning whether climate change is real. The reality is, climate change policies have already been adopted by other nations, and the U.S. is certain to follow. Far fewer people today question whether global warming is real. The physical evidence has been mounting for years, and now that visual evidence has found an audience – think of the dramatic photos of receding glaciers – people are more ready to ask, “What should we do?”

I can appreciate the concern over costs. As I have demonstrated, agriculture can actually reduce emissions of GHGs while also pumping money back into rural communities. As to energy, we all understand aging power plants will need to be replaced and new plants are needed to meet the nation’s growing demand for electricity. We have an opportunity to design plants that are more environmentally friendly. Consumers know creating a “greener” future takes a unified commitment. Indeed, voters across the U.S. are asking for a future that delivers more energy from wind turbines and renewable fuels. There are common sense ways of incorporating greener technology with our existing utility infrastructure.

The one cost that so far has been avoided by those debating climate change could be the most expensive in the long run: the cost of doing nothing. There is no doubt that from the industrial revolution on, human activity has affected the planet. We have come a long way since the days of acid rain, polluted rivers, toxic landfills, and leaded gasoline. Our economy survived just fine, and we have enjoyed a healthier environment. The time is now to enact an effective and intelligent climate change policy. Agriculture needs to be an integral component of the policy solutions we already have at hand.

Carlson is president of North Dakota Farmers Union.

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