The United States was joined at the UN last Friday – Earth Day – by more than 170 nations to sign the formal climate agreement that came out of two weeks of negotiations in Paris back in December. The pact is evidence of the growing momentum behind efforts by nations around the world to reverse the trend of rising global temperatures that are causing changes to our climate, including widespread drought, heavy rains and flooding, and other increased volatile weather.
Much of the attention given the climate agreement has been directed at the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, though it also underscores the need for adapting to changes that are going to take place, and the sustainable production of food, feed and fiber that will be needed to support a global population that is expected to reach 9.6 billion in 35 years – a 30-percent increase.
In terms of mitigation, the agreement looks to low- and no-carbon renewable energy solutions as a key to reducing the amount of GHG emissions that are going into our atmosphere, trapping heat and creating weather patterns that impact agricultural production, shoreline stability and public health.
The United States made a commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent.
For this ambitious goal to be realized, however, the United States must embrace sensible policies that incentivize further biofuel development and reward agricultural producers and foresters for sequestering carbon.
The flow of evidence demonstrating the ability of biofuels to significantly reduce the amount of emissions being generated by the nation’s over-reliance on fossil fuels is nonstop. For example, recent data from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) shows that ethanol made from corn and sorghum has provided nearly half of the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions achieved during the first five years of that state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program (LCFS).
An analysis from the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) shows that despite the penalties imposed on ethanol under the LCFS because of CARB’s flawed assumption that the carbon intensity of the grain-based fuel was greater than gasoline, consumption of the clean fuel has increased since the standard was put into place in 2011. With one credit equivalent to a metric ton of GHG reduction, ethanol has been responsible for 46 percent of the total carbon credits awarded under the LCFS program over the past five years, or 7.58 million metric tons in reduced emissions.
CARB last year lowered the carbon intensity it assigned to ethanol, but it’s still too high when the latest research from Argonne National Laboratory and others show improved technological processing is continually reducing the carbon intensity for biofuels. (The recent studies also show that carbon intensity from gasoline is going up.)
Elsewhere, road transportation accounts for a sixth of all global carbon dioxide emissions. But a new analysis from Lux Research finds that the emergence of low-carbon fuels, including biofuel blends, and vehicle efficiency will cut emissions by 29 percent in 2030.
In addition to providing the biofuels and biomass that can help meet climate change targets, the U.S. agriculture and forestry sectors serve as stewards of the soils and vegetation across the country that serve as carbon sinks, removing an estimated 850 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent from the atmosphere each year and offsetting 16 percent of annual industrial emissions. Unfortunately, as pointed out in a report released in February by the stakeholder coalition Forest Trends, Duke University and the MacArthur Foundation, there is significant uncertainty about the future and scale of this sink.
Any failure to stabilize the current sink and preserve the nation’s land carbon mitigation capacity – through tax incentives, enabling programs and carbon markets backed by globally accepted emission-reduction measuring, reporting and verification (MRV) standards ‑ could jeopardize the effectiveness of this country’s climate change policy and U.S. ability to meet future emissions reduction targets.
The reality is that agriculture and forestry offer big weapons in the fight against climate change and it is time for policy makers to appreciate, facilitate and harness these solutions.