A New Federal Bill Would Empower Farmers, Ranchers, and Foresters in the Fight Against Climate Change

Providing farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners with incentives to capture and store greenhouse gases will help rural economies, fight climate change, and improve habitat for birds.

Using natural processes, America’s working lands and forests could potentially pull billions of tons of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide out of the air each year and store it in soil and biomass. It’s a simple and elegant solution, and a new piece of legislation would be the first nationwide step in fully realizing its potential while providing much-needed support to the country’s agricultural workers.

Four senators—two Democrats and two Republicans—have introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2020, which directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help expand and harmonize the existing patchwork of greenhouse gas credit markets around the country. It’s a truly bipartisan approach that recognizes the vital role our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners play in the fight against climate change. It also provides new sources of revenue for local economies in rural areas.

Greenhouse gas credit markets allow companies that emit greenhouse gases to purchase credits to offset their emissions. The money raised from those credit purchases can then be used to support agricultural and forestry practices that remove carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in soil and biomass.

Natural climate solutions are conservation and management practices on natural and agricultural landscapes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as cover cropping, prescribed grazing, and reforestation. They are an important part of solving the climate puzzle.

Audubon’s climate report, Survival By Degrees, found that if global temperatures continue rising at their current rate, two-thirds of North American bird species will be vulnerable to extinction by mid-century. The report also shows how extreme weather caused by climate change—heat waves, drought, heavy rain, and false springs, among others—threaten specific regions in different ways, and how those threats have implications for the people who live there too. Rural communities are particularly vulnerable

To fix the problem we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and remove the excess that has built up over a century of burning fossil fuels. This will help the atmosphere eventually return to the stable state it was in before humans started manipulating the global thermostat. Linking emissions reduction and removal goals to balance emissions released with those removed is known as “net-zero,” and must be achieved on a global scale by 2050 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C and avoid catastrophe.

While technology like renewable energy and battery storage plays an important role in reducing carbon emissions, the other necessary step of removing excess carbon from that atmosphere requires thinking beyond manmade technological solutions, which are expensive to deploy on a global scale. Fortunately, nature’s own carbon removal technology provides low-cost and efficient services and is already deployed everywhere. Plants and trees could help get us over 30 percent of the way to our net-zero goals by mid-century. Our nation’s vast expanses of cropland, prairie, and forests are already a massive carbon sink. Greater adoption of natural climate solutions will transform our agriculture and forestry sectors into gigantic engines of carbon removal.

Audubon is already leading efforts at the state level to expand access to greenhouse gas credit markets for farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners. Audubon South Carolina manages an active, 5,500-acre active carbon sequestration bank selling credits on the California market. It is currently storing 1.3 million tons of carbon, the equivalent to taking 280,000 cars off the road for a year. Audubon Texas is part of a working group at Rice University developing national protocols, and Audubon Washington recently worked to pass innovative legislation to help farmers capture more carbon on their land. Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative certifies ranches that restore and protect bird habitat.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act can further boost this power while strengthening rural economies nationwide and improving biodiversity and soil productivity. Beyond their climate-fighting potential, these landscapes provide important habitat for birds, especially grassland birds like the Eastern Kingbird, one of the most imperiled guilds of species. 

The capability of our farms and forests to contribute in the fight against climate change has been underappreciated for too long, so we thank Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Mike Braun (R-Indiana), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) for their bipartisan leadership on this issue. Our hope is that collaborative proposals like the Growing Climate Solutions Act are just the beginning of the kind of bipartisan cooperation necessary to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and save hundreds of vulnerable species of birds.