California studies what a carbon-neutral future means for its lands

In a carbon-neutral future, California’s farmers could plant water-conserving crops enriched by composting, the result of widespread carbon farming. Socially disadvantaged farmers could become more empowered. Farmworkers could be healthier and better paid. These are just some of the wide ranging ideas discussed in the Draft Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy, an ambitious report from the California Natural Resource Agency (CNRA) that proposes major potential changes to the state’s agricultural sector in response to climate change.

The draft report, released in October, maps out a grand vision of how California could achieve its climate goals by better managing its cropland, grasslands, and other landscapes, though avoids details about how to get there. The CNRA released the draft in conjunction with other state agencies, after months of public outreach and regional workshops. Californians have until Nov. 24 to submit public comments.

“If we don’t change how we’re managing California’s vast natural and working lands, we’re in big trouble when it comes to climate change,” said Jeanne Merrill, the Policy Director at the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), a coalition of sustainable and organic agriculture organizations. One of many groups expected to weigh in on the document, CalCAN is submitting a comment in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and other organizations. 

“The draft report from the state does a very good job of characterizing the importance of getting it right,” Merrill said. “I think there is more to be said around how we get there.”

The CNRA compiled the draft report in direct response to California’s 30×30 pledge, which aims to conserve 30 percent of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. It also grapples with the state’s attempt to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

If California wants to meet these climate goals, the draft report suggests, it needs to overhaul the way it manages its land. About 90 percent of the state is still covered in farmland, forests, wetlands and other landscapes, and they’re storing an estimated 5,340 million metric tons of carbon. If these lands are well managed, they can store even more carbon, limit future emissions, and mitigate climate risks like increased heat and flooding. If they’re burned, developed, or mismanaged, they’ll emit greenhouse gases instead. The CNRA also notes that smarter land management can increase economic opportunity, address historical wrongs towards Native peoples, and dismantle structural racism.

The draft report lists potential reforms for eight different types of California landscapes, including croplands and grasslands. Nature-based solutions for farmers include planting cover crops and installing climate-smart irrigation systems. Fields that are abandoned due to lack of water could be devoted to carbon sequestration, and ranchers and solar developers could be incentivized to partner together. The CNRA also stresses how essential agriculture is to California’s well-being, noting that it provides residents with food security, can act as an essential carbon sink, and produces two-thirds of the United States’ fruits and nuts.

The report reads as something of a brainstorm, and it’s not clear which—if any—of its proposals will be implemented as state programs, goals, or laws. “This is the first draft,” said CalCAN’s Jeanne Merrill. Still, she says, there’s room for improvement. While the report dwells a lot on carbon, it doesn’t significantly address lesser-known greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which are big emitters in agriculture. Merrill would also like to see more emphasis on affordable housing development—smart building means less sprawl into agricultural lands—and more support for farmers and ranchers.

“We’re asking for a lot of changes from farmers and ranchers,” said Merrill. “They can’t do that without having adequate technical resources, financial incentives, and research to support this work.”

As the deadline for public comments approaches, other stakeholders and advocacy groups are starting to weigh in. Matt Simmons, a staff attorney with the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), has sharply criticized the draft report for mentioning turning trees into “wood products” as a carbon storage solution. “It’s sort of insulting that they put this in a State of California document,” he said. “We want to see real funding put behind the solutions that will make the most difference.” Other groups are expected to submit comments in the next week and a half.