Agricultural Solutions to Climate Change, California Takes Action

Posted on Friday, June 9th, 2017 by Jeanne Merrill

This post first appeared on the blog of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of which CalCAN is a member. 

The rollback of federal action to address climate change began in this administration in its early days, well before President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. The actual withdrawal from the agreement could take years, but the damage of the withdrawal is the message it sends.

The President suggested action on climate change and a move away from fossil fuels would cost our economy millions of jobs and trillions of dollars. This is simply not true, and all one needs to do is look at California to understand why it’s not.

California is an example of a state where climate change action has helped fuel the state’s recovery from the Great Recession. In 2006, California passed the country’s most comprehensive climate change law, adopting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction measures. But instead of lagging behind, California surged ahead thanks in large part to our action on climate change mitigation.

Since those laws went into affect, the state’s GDP growth has significantly outpaced the national average, and California now leads the country in job growth. There is no doubt that we owe a more than a small measure of this success to the state’s embrace of a new clean energy economy.

Last year, California stepped up our climate change ambitions by passing legislation requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 – or the equivalent of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half per person. Fifty percent of our energy will come from renewable sources by 2030.

California’s farmers have played an important role in our state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation successes. As US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has suggested in many of his recent remarks, farmers have always adapted to new challenges. Climate change, however, requires a level of adaptation few have experienced before. Whether it’s more frequent floods, extreme droughts, new pests and disease, wildfire, heat waves or loss of winter chill hours, climate change requires a new way of doing business. And it requires doing all we can, now, to avoid the worst impacts.

Many California farmers and ranchers are responding to climate change. Our state’s farms and ranches produce more renewable energy, mainly solar, than farms in any other state. We also have new climate change and agriculture programs aimed at providing the financial and technical assistance farmers need to make the transition to a way of growing that not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions and sequesters carbon, but also builds resilience in the face of greater weather extremes.

California’s Climate Smart Agriculture Programs

Photo Courtesy of Phil Foster

Our coalition, the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), was formed in 2009 by sustainable and organic agriculture organizations, many of which are also members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). We formed in order to find sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change. At the time, California was developing it strategies to achieve the new climate change law targets, but there was little discussion of the role of agriculture.

Thanks in no small part to our coalition, agriculture is now squarely a part of the discussion in California on how to address climate change. Since 2014, California has invested over $180 million in new “Climate Smart Agriculture” programs.

The first Climate Smart Agriculture programs helped California to respond to the state’s worst drought in decades and included: the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), a new farmland conservation program to protect lands at risk of sprawl development; the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP); and new state funding for dairy digesters to capture potent methane emissions.

At the time, California was deep into an extreme drought with our reservoirs dangerously below sustainable levels. We needed to save water. We also had a new source of funding for climate change action from the auctions held under the California’s cap-and-trade program, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas missions from the largest emitters.

SWEEP was created, using cap-and-trade funding, to take advantage of the synergy between reducing water and energy and its associated greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), SWEEP funds improvements to irrigation, including new water pumps (e.g., going from diesel powered to solar), soil moisture monitoring equipment, drip irrigation systems and other irrigation management improvements. The program is highly oversubscribed and to date has funded over 500 projects throughout the state.

Early in Governor Jerry Brown’s tenure, his administration embraced in-fill development and related smart growth strategies to reduce vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions. The focus was on building more transit-connected housing within the bounds of existing cities in order to avoid sprawl development. In 2012, a study from UC Davis found that an acre of urban land emitted 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions than an acre of irrigated, conventional cropland. That study gave us what we needed to advocate for farmland conservation as a complementary smart growth, climate change strategy.

Two years later SALCP was created to fund conservation easements on agricultural lands with demonstrated risk of sprawl or rural ranchette development. The first climate change-focused land conservation program, the program has funded easements on over 30,000 agricultural acres to date.

John Bucher demonstrating his compost production

New Programs: Healthy Soils, Alternative Manure Management

After several legislative attempts, we successfully advocated last year for the creation of the Healthy Soils Program. Aimed at increasing carbon storage in our agricultural soils, trees and shrubs, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall, the new program launches this summer. It will provide direct financial assistance for farmers and ranchers wanting to use new soils management practices like cover crops, compost, mulch, reduced tillage or installing new plantings like hedgerows, windbreaks and more. The program will also fund demonstration projects to help promote the adoption of healthy soils practices.

The last new Climate Smart Agriculture program addresses methane emissions from dairies. Legislation passed last year will require the dairy industry in California, the largest in the country, to reduce its methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, by 40 percent by 2030. If voluntary measures fail, direct regulations may begin in 2024. The emphasis in the state until recently has been on capturing methane from dairy lagoons using digesters. But digesters have not worked for all and may be best for large operations that are well capitalized. To better address the needs of dairies and to better achieve multiple environmental and health benefits, CalCAN advocated for a more diverse methane strategy to include non-digester solutions.

This summer, the new Alternative Manure Management Practices (AMMP) program will launch. CDFA is still finalizing the program guidelines, but the department has proposed that projects may seek up to $1 million for a range of practices that move dairy operations away from wet manure handling to drier manure handling systems that may include compost as a final product.

What’s Next for California?

Our cap-and-trade program, which funds our climate change programs, sunsets in 2020. The legislature is currently debating the future of the program. Governor Brown wants a two-thirds vote to extend it. Many are frustrated with flaws of the market-based program, but have not yet coalesced around what the next iteration of the program may look like.

But the question in California is no longer whether or not we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in new ways of living and doing business; the question is how we will achieve our climate change goals. This is the right question to be asking now.

Climate and Agriculture Action Across the Country

California is not alone in embracing agricultural solutions to climate change. New York recently announced plans to reduce methane emissions, including dairy emissions. Bills to promote healthy soils management to capture and store carbon have been introduced in a number states. Maryland recently signed their new healthy soils program into law. Multiple states are considering carbon tax or cap-and-trade proposals.

While the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is certainly a troubling setback, it has not stopped those in local and state government, or many farmers and ranches, from pursuing sustainable, climate-friendly ways of doing business and living our lives.

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