Climate change policy is back in the nation’s headlines, and you, as a farmer, could benefit by taking a look at its implications for your operation. It might also be appropriate to respond to the potential threat of climate change, even if you’re not fully convinced it will be a problem.
For some time, climate change models have projected the average temperature worldwide will increase for the next several decades. At the same time, there will be greater temperature and precipitation variability in most regions of the world. The predicted impacts have already begun. As California faces a fourth straight year of drought, farmers are struggling to have enough water to keep their operations going.
For many years, some farm groups have embraced the notion that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would actually benefit farmers. Through a process known as the carbon fertilization effect, greater biomass growth would lead to higher yields for certain types of crops, such as rice, wheat and soybeans. However, after extensive research, it’s clear higher carbon dioxide concentration will occur at the same time as higher temperatures and more variable precipitation. Those factors coupled with limiting plant nutrients means the net impact on crop yields from climate change will likely be negative.
In addition to the ability to improve their economic bottom line through the federal crop insurance program and conservation practices, a full-blown effort to address climate change in the U.S. would likely include carbon offset trading. This would create an opportunity for farmers to monetize their practices and increase the carbon content of their soil or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Although no national system is in place, California (in partnership with the Canadian province of Quebec) has a cap and trade structure that allows livestock and dairy farmers with methane digesters to sell their reduced emissions as an offset. In June 2015, the California Air Resources Board added a similar opportunity for rice farmers.
Farmers have an opportunity to be major players in the renewable energy/fuels sector, which will need to expand in the U.S. if it’s going to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Farmers grow the majority of the feedstock to produce ethanol and biodiesel and are partnering with energy firms to build wind turbines and solar panels.
Agriculture could face higher energy prices if President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants is implemented. The CPP, proposed on Aug. 3, will create incentives for biomass electric power. Farmers could minimize exposure to higher energy costs through energy efficiency improvements.
There would also be opportunities for farmers to offset some of those costs, especially if other states follow California’s example and establish carbon markets. It’s also clear if the U.S. fails to take part in a concerted global effort to combat climate change, it would cost agriculture as flooded fields and drought-stricken crops would become even more common occurrences in the future.