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Natural carbon capture and ‘working lands’ are gaining ground in climate-action playbook

Natural climate solutions – such as reforestation, planting cover crops, and limiting conversion of grassland to farmland – could mitigate as much as one-fifth of the net annual greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., a recent study found.

A study published in 2018 finds that natural climate solutions – such as reforestation, planting cover crops, and limiting conversion of grassland to farmland – could mitigate as much as one-fifth of the net annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

A massive global effort to plant trees and to reforest up to 2.5 billion acres could have a significant impact in arresting and reversing climate change, according to a widely published recent study by Swiss researchers.

Another study, published in Science Advances in November 2018, finds that natural climate solutions – such as reforestation, planting cover crops, and limiting conversion of grassland to farmland – could mitigate as much as one-fifth of the net annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, approximately the equivalent of removing greenhouse gas emissions by all of the cars and trucks in the country.

While battles between renewable energy advocates and the fossil fuel industry dominate the policy scene in the nation and in Minnesota, the potential for natural carbon capture tends to get ignored. And the good news is that Minnesota made some progress on this front in a 2019 legislative session that generally has been graded a failure for insufficient progress on climate action.

Just after the end of the 2019 legislative session, MinnPost painted a particularly bleak scene (“An absolute failure: Why the Legislature’s energy and climate budget does a whole lot of nothing, May 24). Looking at the outcome of the energy finance and policy committees’ bill alone, this view is warranted. But, if we adjust the lens a little and think about a portfolio of strategies, the picture gets a little brighter. 

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The debate in the energy policy and finance committees during the recent legislative session was largely about the path to reduced emissions and energy efficiency. Resistance to those efforts is shortsighted, ideological and partisan, particularly odd since business and utility industry leadership in Minnesota generally has been very supportive of renewable energy initiatives.

Jack Ditmore
Jack Ditmore
But, elsewhere, there was action on natural steps in climate action that capture carbon. While arising from different environmental concerns — producing important water quality benefits and enhanced wildlife habitat, for example — the actions also contributed to the larger playbook of climate strategies.

Progress included:

  • Allocations made possible by the Legacy Amendment from the Outdoor Heritage Fund included over $17 million for forests – long recognized for their ability to capture carbon dioxide pollution – and over $38 million for restoring and enhancing prairie lands, which studies have concluded serve as significant “carbon sinks.”
  • The Clean Water Fund — also the result of the Legacy Amendment — included $4.3 million for the Forever Green Initiative to increase perennial and winter annual crops by Minnesota farmers and $4.0 million for conservation easements on wellhead protection areas, which will both protect drinking water and capture carbon. 
  • The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which administers over $138 million of appropriations from the Clean Water Fund, has made it a priority to emphasize and promote practices that provide perennial and winter cover crops and is updating guidance for achieving carbon capture, such in vegetation selection for conservation practices.

These were baby steps, however, and Minnesota needs to take giant steps now on both reducing carbon emissions and natural carbon capture. 

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One big obstacle is that about three-fourths of all land in the state is in private ownership, and approximately half of the total land of the state is spread among about 74,500 farms. And unfortunately, Minnesota farmers have just experienced their least profitable year in three decades. They are under enormous pressure to make a living for their families today and are not able to absorb the loss of income from taking land out of production, even when the future benefits are apparent.

Dane Smith
Dane Smith
A solution for the next legislative session may be found in a Working Lands Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study done for the Legislature in 2018. The study envisions a program that will provide farmers with contract payments to establish potentially profitable perennial and cover crops and also support for new crop research and development of markets for the crops that will make ongoing subsidies unnecessary in the long run. The outcome can be profitable farm operations that will contribute to carbon storage, improved water quality, enhanced wildlife habitat, and other important benefits.

There are reasons for optimism that this approach can succeed. Minnesota has a longstanding commitment to conservation practices, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service reports that cover crops were among the top five ecological practices in its contracts with Minnesota farmers in 2018. Under certain market and price assumptions, economic modeling suggests that both known cover crops – such as alfalfa – and newer, less familiar options – such as Kernza® and camelina (an annual oilseed cover crop) – already can be grown profitably in some areas of the state.

Strategies built on renewable energy and conservation are critical, but will not be enough by themselves. Natural climate solutions by themselves won’t fix the climate problem, either. Neither is a panacea. We need to pursue a broad portfolio of strategies.

Jack Ditmore is a former chair of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. Dane Smith is president emeritus of Growth & Justice. Both are policy fellows for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy group that seeks equitable and sustainable economic growth for Minnesota.


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