FAQ: USDA recently announced a major plan that significantly involves agriculture as the Obama Administration seeks to address the threat of climate change. What is the Administration's plan and how do they expect to carry it out?
Answer: In a recent speech in April, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out a comprehensive approach to partner with agricultural producers to address the threat of climate change. Building on the creation of USDA's Climate Hubs last year, the new initiatives will utilize voluntary, incentive-based conservation, forestry, and energy programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors.
Through these efforts, USDA expects to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year (about 2% of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions) by 2025. That's the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, or the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes last year.
Agriculture plays big role in the updated plan
Vilsack was joined at his Michigan State University speech by Brian Deese, senior adviser to U.S. President Barrack Obama. Deese noted that last year, Obama made a pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Deese says the Obama Administration's updated plan announced in April 2015 will help the American agriculture and forest sectors contribute to that goal.
"American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations. That's why U.S. agricultural emissions are lower than the global average," said Vilsack. "We can build on this success in a way that combats climate change and strengthens the American agriculture economy. Through incentive-based initiatives, we can partner with producers to significantly reduce carbon emissions while improving yields, increasing farm operation's energy efficiency, and helping farmers and ranchers earn revenue from clean energy production."
Framework of climate plan has 10 building blocks
"This is an innovative and creative effort to look across all of USDA's programs and put forward voluntary and incentive-based programs that will increase the bottom lines of ranchers and farmers while reducing net greenhouse gas emissions," said Deese. "Taken together, these partnerships will reduce emissions by 120 million metric tons or 2% of our economy-wide emissions in 2025: exactly the collaborative, bold action this moment demands of us."
The framework announced at the Michigan State speech by Vilsack in April consists of 10 building blocks that span a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy. Through this initiative, USDA will use authorities provided in the 2014 Farm Bill to offer incentives and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. USDA intends to pursue partnerships and leverage resources to conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks, reduce emissions, increase renewable energy and build resilience in ag and forest systems.
USDA's "Building Blocks For Climate Action"
Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. For example, the effort aims to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.
Nitrogen Stewardship: Focus on the right timing, type, placement and quantity of nutrients to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and provide cost savings through efficient application.
Livestock Partnerships: Encourage broader deployment of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solids separators to reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy and swine operations including the installation of 500 new digesters over the next 10 years.
Conservation of Sensitive Lands: Use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to reduce GHG emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting, and the conservation of wetlands and organic soils. For example, the effort aims to enroll 400,000 acres of lands with high greenhouse gas benefits into the CRP program.
Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.
Private Forest Growth and Retention: Through the Forest Legacy Program and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes. Employ the Forest Stewardship Program to cover an average of 2.1 million acres annually (new or revised plans), in addition to the 26 million acres covered by active plans.
Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 5,000 acres each year.
Promotion of Wood Products: Increase the use of wood as a building material, to store additional carbon in buildings while offsetting the use of energy from fossil fuel.
Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal and property values. The effort aims to plant an additional 9,000 trees in urban areas on average each year through 2025.
Energy Generation and Efficiency: Promote renewable energy technologies and improve energy efficiency. Through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program, work with utilities to improve the efficiency of equipment and appliances. Using the Rural Energy for America Program, develop additional renewable energy opportunities. Support the National On-Farm Energy Initiative to improve farm energy efficiency through cost-sharing and energy audits.
Provide both economic and environmental benefits
The plan states: "These efforts will provide economic and environmental benefits through efficiency improvements, improved yields, and climate resilience while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. For example, implementing no-till practices can both increase carbon sequestration and improve the soil's water holding capacity, reducing the vulnerability to drought and soil erosion. Likewise, adopting the right timing, placement, source and rate of nutrients can reduce input costs and maintain ag yield while minimizing nitrous oxide emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.
"Addressing climate change is critical for future agricultural and forest health and will require innovation, creativity, and consideration of all potential solutions. Liquid renewable fuels (ethanol and biodiesel) are already supplying 10% of U.S. transportation fuel needs. Great strides have been made to improve the performance of the ethanol and biodiesel industry. The newest and most efficient ethanol plants produce fuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 40%, and there are opportunities to improve performance even further.
"Biomass can also contribute to heating, cooling and electric needs, offering a low-cost option to reduce greenhouse gases. USDA is promoting a strategy that recognizes forest stocks can reduce emissions by substituting for fossil fuels and energy intensive materials. Doing so will create strong markets for wood materials, raise the value of lands in forests, and encourage investment in forest regrowth and expansion."
USDA's strategy will be based on the following principles:
Voluntary and incentive-based: Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are stewards of the land. USDA has a track record of successful conservation though voluntary programs designed to provide technical assistance for resource management. These efforts fit within USDA's approach of "cooperative conservation."
Focused on multiple economic and environmental benefits: To be successful, the proposed actions should provide economic and environmental benefits through efficiency improvements, improved yields or reduced risks.
Meet the needs of producers: This strategy is designed for working farms, ranches, forests and production systems. USDA will encourage actions that enhance productivity and improve efficiency.
Cooperative and focused on building partnerships: USDA will seek out opportunities to leverage efforts by industry, farm groups, conservation organizations, municipalities, public and private investment products, tribes and states.
Assess progress and measure success: USDA is committed to establishing quantitative goals and objectives for each building block, and will track and report on progress."America's farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have a track record of extraordinary productivity gains and natural resource stewardship," says Vilsack. "Today, producers are working alongside USDA and other partners to make their operations and communities more resistant to a changing climate. Building on this legacy of partnership, efficiency and innovation, American agriculture and the Nation's forests can continue to play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon storage in our forests and our soils. U.S. producers and landowners are already global leaders in sustainable land management and efficient production systems, and in turn will continue to be global leaders in implementing climate change solutions."