Before a USDA carbon bank, try some pilot projects, says climate alliance

A few weeks ago, USDA climate adviser Robert Bonnie used a variant of “walk before you run” to describe the Biden administration goal of bipartisan support for climate mitigation in agriculture. On Monday, a sector-spanning coalition said the USDA “needs to crawl before it can walk” into a carbon bank that would help farmers adopt climate-smart practices.

The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), a carbon bank advocate, said the USDA should lay the foundation for the climate bank by first setting up a series of pilot projects to identify fruitful avenues for future action. The alliance did not suggest how long the pilot projects would run but said they would aid the development of carbon markets and the direction of the carbon bank.

While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the USDA will employ an array of climate tools, the proposal of a carbon bank has become a lightning rod for debate. Bonnie wrote in favor of a carbon bank while at a think tank. Two senior Republican senators said last week that Vilsack lacks the authority to fund the carbon bank by tapping a $30 billion USDA account that also pays for crop subsidies. Their stance would deny a ready source of money for a carbon bank and potentially limit the size of any climate initiative that it backed.

Ben Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund, a co-founder of FACA, said discussions within the coalition of farm, forest, environment, agribusiness and food retail groups showed a greatly differing ideas of what a carbon bank ought to do, from establishing carbon accounting criteria to providing expert advice to producers who want to adopt climate-smart practice or promoting projects that are not suited to carbon markets but have climate benefits.

“The deeper we got into the discussion, the more we learned and understood that there was an interim step that USDA needed to take here,” said Thomas during an online FACA news conference. “In other words, USDA needs to crawl before it can walk on a carbon bank. The pilot project areas we’re recommending will help inform how an individual carbon bank could or should work.”

In recommendations to Congress and the Biden administration, FACA said creation of a carbon bank would be contingent on a “significant increase” in the $30 billion fund held by the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp and reimbursed annually by Congress. FACA groups declined to how large an increase was needed or to suggest how much the USDA should spend on climate mitigation. There is a waiting list for some of USDA’s stewardship programs.

The pilot projects proposed by FACA would operate alongside but separate from existing USDA soil and water conservation programs, said Thomas. The pilot projects would focus on climate benefits and demonstrate measurable results in reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, he said.

To date, carbon contracts pay relatively small amounts compared to the cost of equipment or verification of carbon sequestration. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, an opponent of the carbon bank, has said climate mitigation efforts should start with existing USDA stewardship programs, which are voluntary and often share in the cost of adopting new practices. At a farm conference in late March, Bonnie endorsed incentives and free market action. “We want to go slow (at first) to go fast in the future,” he said by building bipartisan support for enduring climate programs.

FACA and farm groups in general say climate mitigation by farmers and ranchers should be voluntary and market- and incentive-based. Farm-state lawmakers say the same thing.

To read FACA’s carbon bank recommendations, click here.