Western farm groups back incentives to fight climate change

By Justin Cremer

December 1, 2020

What if the best way to get Western farmers to reduce their carbon emissions and adopt greener practices was to simply pay them?

Support for voluntary, incentive-based programs that would reward farmers for taking climate-friendly steps like sequestering carbon and using renewable energy appears to be growing on both sides of the Atlantic.

With chapters in all 50 states and some six million members nationwide, the American Farm Bureau Federation is the largest farming group in the United States. As recently as 2010, the group was endorsing climate change skepticism and vowing to “aggressively” fight climate legislation. But earlier this month, the Farm Bureau revealed what it called “an unprecedented set of recommendations to guide the development of federal climate policy.” The 40-plus recommendations are anchored by incentive-based mechanisms that would pay farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon and reduce energy consumption.

The voluntary carbon sequestration would be a performance-based, transferrable tax credit similar to the 45Q tax credit for industrial manufacturers and would also include a one-time payment for “early adopters.” Energy reduction would be financed by increasing the funding available via the US Department of Agriculture’s REAP program to invest in renewable energy systems or improve their existing energy efficiency.

Unlikely alliance

The policy recommendations are the result of the Farm Bureau’s creation of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), a somewhat unlikely partnership with green advocacy groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.

“We are proud to have broken through historical barriers to form this unique alliance focused on climate policy,” Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall, a FACA co-chair, said.

Another FACA co-chair, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, said the alliance of farming and green groups should send “a powerful message to Capitol Hill about the urgent need for bipartisan climate legislation.”

“More resilient farms and forests protect the agricultural economy, reduce risk from the climate impacts that are already here and help prevent worsening climate impacts in the future,” Krupp said.

The National Farmers Union is also a FACA partner. The lobbying group represents some 200,000 American farm families across the country. The union’s president, Rob Larew, said the policy recommendations are partially the result of farmers increasingly feeling the effects of climate change.

“Every year, farmers face more frequent and severe weather events, making it just that much harder to make a profit,” Larew, also a FACA co-chair, said. “There are concrete actions farmers can take to build resilience to weather extremes and pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but they need strong policy behind them.”

Similar situation in Europe

While the unusual alliance behind the FACA will likely have to wait until the new Congress is sworn in to see if their recommendations make it into legislation, similar voluntary incentive programs for farmers are also being discussed in Europe.

The EU’s new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will likely include voluntary “eco-schemes” that will give farmers extra funding for implementing additional environmental protections. The CAP accounts for over one-third of the entire EU budget and determines agricultural policy for seven years at a time. The current CAP will expire at the end of 2022 and trilogue negotiations between parliament, the European Council and the European Commission that will determine the future of EU agriculture beyond 2023 are currently ongoing.

A proposed EU Climate Law is also under negotiation. A pillar of the European Commission’s climate action plan known as the European Green Deal, the Climate Law would legally bind member states to the continent-wide goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. As part of the Climate Law talks, the European Parliament has expressed support for a carbon credit scheme for farmers, a plan backed by the continent’s largest farmer interest group, COPA-COGECA.

In October, COPA-COGECA secretary-general Pekka Pesonen said a carbon credit scheme for farmers would provide “an exceptional opportunity for European farming to harness the carbon sequestration-potential of agricultural lands.”

“[A carbon credit] will provide farmers with a vital additional market-based income and it will give perspectives for our young farmers,” Pesonen said. “Farming’s first strategic role is to produce food and ensure food security, which is more and more challenging in the face of weather extremes by the changing climate.”

He went on to hail the carbon credit scheme as a “pragmatic and concrete” tool in the fight against climate change. In expressing support for the carbon credit, COPA-COGECA said that farmers across Europe are already feeling the impacts of climate change and realize that “more needs to be done” to reduce the sector’s environmental impact.

Although the interest group stressed that the EU farming sector has increased productivity by 25 percent since 1990 while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 percent during the same period, a recent report from the European Environment Agency pointed to unsustainable farming practices as a prime culprit of the “serious, continuing decline” of Europe’s biodiversity.

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