Building Natural Carbon: Five Policy Principles
Driven by the fossil-fueled industrialization of Asia, carbon dioxide levels hit 395 parts per million in 2012, the highest level in four or five million years. That was an era when sea levels were around 80 feet higher and temperatures up to 10° Fahrenheit hotter. If we sustain those CO2 levels, or go higher as we are doing, over time a completely different world will emerge.
Disruptive climate change is pushing two great carbon-reduction imperatives. The first is to dramatically reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon pollution through a clean energy revolution, a rapid transition to non-fossil energy sources such as sun and wind. But even if we stop the growth of carbon in the atmosphere, science tells us we have already crossed the danger line. We must begin actively reducing carbon concentrations that have escalated since humanity moved to fossil-fueled economies nearly three centuries ago. We must ally with the natural power of plant photosynthesis to absorb carbon in vegetation and soils, a biocarbon revolution to match the clean energy revolution.
The biocarbon revolution will be driven by public policy, none more important than policies of the federal government. There is virtually no branch of the federal government where opportunities could not be uncovered. A starting place is to line out five federal biocarbon policy principles through which substantial biocarbon storage could be realized:
#1. Channel carbon revenues to biocarbon preserving/building activities.
While no one expects immediate passage of federal climate policy, a number of congressional leaders are teeing up proposals. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Bernie Sanders have one developing vehicle, and Rep. Henry Waxman, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Brian Schatz have another. The carbon tax tool is ascendant, while cap-and-trade is in disfavor. This eliminates markets for carbon offsetting. Early markets have channeled carbon revenues to forest and farm biocarbon investments. But offsets inherently balance against a current carbon emission, so at best they result in carbon-neutral performance. To actually reduce carbon concentrations we need carbon-negative performance. The shift to carbon tax proposals opens the opportunity to support carbon-negative projects with carbon revenues. Those could include:
- Carbon-preserving and building activities on federal lands, including those managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service and Department of Defense
- Significant build-up of land conservation programs run by USDA, Department of Interior and NOAA
- Scientific research efforts to resolve uncertainties around best practices for biocarbon accumulation
- Investments in making urban areas greener.
#2. Incorporate explicit biocarbon goals in federal land conservation granting programs.
A number of programs provide financial support to private landowners to enhance natural benefits including water supply and quality and biodiversity. The USDA offers the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Security Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program; Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, Grasslands Reserve Program and Forest Legacy Program. NOAA offers the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. The Land and Water Conservation Fund at Department of Interior is another significant effort. Those programs should all incorporate an explicit carbon metric, which would drive funding to biocarbon-building projects. At this point the best model for this, perhaps the only, is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service EQIP program in Oregon.
One legislative vehicle that proposed an incentives program for private landowners to build carbon on their properties was H.R. 2880 introduced in 2009 into the 111th Congress by Rep. Kurt Schrader and others. It provides a model for direct biocarbon-building supports outside of an offset program.
#3. Incorporate consideration of green infrastructure alternatives in federal granting programs.
Green infrastructure, using natural features instead of hard options – protecting coasts with wetlands rather seawalls, capturing stormwater with urban forests rather than pipes – saves taxpayers lots of money. Savings can range from 15-80 percent, with reduced costs in the the one-quarter to one-third range, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies show. Green infrastructure is also a win for biocarbon storage. Its potential should be evaluated in relevant federal granting programs.
One good example is the EPA program to enforce water quality rules. The agency provides billions to local governments to correct problems such as combined sewer overflows. EPA strongly supports green infrastructure, but does not require that it be considered. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is another agency with a strong green infrastructure promotion effort, but does not include explicit requirements to consider it, for example in the Community Development Block Grant Program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency disburses massive funds to rebuild from disasters without any green infrastructure criteria. Incorporating required consideration of green alternatives, and prioritizing funding to proposals that incorporate them, has large potential.
A model is Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkeley’s S.355 Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2013, It sets a selection criteria ”whether the project, to the maximum extent practicable, incorporates environmentally sustainable approaches,” including green infrastructure, and assigns priority to projects that do.
#4. Move planning for federal lands and projects into an ecological services framework that includes carbon.
Federal lands and projects supply many crucial natural benefits which are not fully taken into account in planning., including water, biodiversity, recreation and carbon storage. But they do not always gain the same attention as traditional functions such as timber and livestock grazing.
An April 18, 2012 letter from Schrader and Blumenauer to the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service states the issue. “Despite growing knowledge about methods for valuing ecosystem services, traditional benefit-cost analyses for federal activities do not include adequate consideration of these benefits.” So for example timber harvesting might take place without evaluating the alternative use of the land for water supply. The two representatives asked for a joint study by the Corps and Service to explore how ecological services accounting can be incorporated into project assessments. This study could provide a foundation to extend ecological services accounting throughout federal agencies.
Ecoservices planning models are in development on Northwest forests including the Deschutes, Rogue and Willamette. New national forest planning rules also in development incorporate numerous mentions of ecological services, and a new watershed planning framework opens opportunities.
#5. Incorporate carbon reduction in resiliency efforts
With the increase in extreme events such as Superstorm Sandy is coming a wave of new interest in climate resiliency, adapting our societies and ecosystems to increasing turbulence and extremes. A prime example is the Obama Administration release of the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy March 26. It sets out a five-year roadmap for adaptation of natural resources and resource-dependent communities. That was part of a larger effort spurred by a 2009 executive order which created the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force spanning across the federal government. The effort has five pillars:
- Integrating adaptation into federal government planning and activities
- Building resilience to climate change into communities
- Improving accessibility and coordination of science for decision making
- Developing strategies to safeguard natural resources in a changing climate
- Enhancing efforts to lead and support international adaptation.
To these five should be added a sixth pillar – Leveraging resiliency efforts to reduce carbon emissions and concentrations. Resilience and adaptation will draw significant resources from governments at all levels, businesses and individuals. But resources are limited, especially government budgets. When those investments are made, they should incorporate carbon reduction where possible.
In this respect, biocarbon comes out as one of the best win-win solutions. For example, forests reduce heat and capture stormwater, while also capturing carbon. Creating coastal wetlands to block storm surges builds a carbon-rich environment, contrasted to seawalls built with carbon-intensive concrete and steel.
If deep carbon reductions are not made, climate consequences will swamp all efforts at adaptation. The World Bank recently noted that the world is on track to nearly 4° Celsius (nearly 8° Fahrenheit) heating. “. . . there is also no certainty that adaptation to a world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today.”
To keep climate change to a level at which adaptation is still possible, deep carbon reductions must commence immediately.
Through applying these five principles, the federal government could build significant biocarbon storage on public and private lands throughout the U.S. The greatest gains will come with the devotion of significant carbon revenues to biocarbon-building activities. That will be a politically steep climb. Meanwhile, the other principles can inform policy sooner, and much can take place at the executive level, with congressional action unnecessary. Incremental steps can build toward major initiatives. The biocarbon imperative to begin drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere calls for efforts that will take decades. What is most important is to begin taking the steps that can be accomplished now
 Dominique Lueckenhoff, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Green Infrastructure: Saving Money & Water, Creating Jobs and a Sustainable Future, Mayors Innovation Project Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2010.
 World Bank, , Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided, November 2012