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By David G. Taylor September 2, 2011

Tree-planting incentives taking root

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, the House"s cap-and-trade bill, included incentives for power companies to plant trees. To receive such grants, the companies would have needed to partner with non-profit tree planting organizations. The idea was to save consumers money by providing shade to reduce cooling costs and offset carbon emissions. The legislation stated that "shade trees planted in strategic locations can reduce residential cooling costs by as much as 30 percent." But the bill never made it through the Senate and expired at the end of the 111th Congress in early 2011.

We were curious if any other action had been taken to encourage tree planting since the proposed legislation petered out. The short answer is yes, although none as comprehensive as the cap-and-trade bill.

First, it is worth explaining why trees are so important to conservationists in their efforts to combat climate change. All plants absorb carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas -- as a part of the photosynthesis process. Carbon dioxide is in turn stored as carbon in the plant"s biomass -- its trunk, roots, and leaves. This storage prevents the carbon from escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. More plants should mean less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

There's plenty of reasons to plant trees for commercial and non-commercial reasons, but the Obama administration wanted to provide additional incentives. So in March 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would promote the use of wood as a building material. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack"s strategy specifies that the U.S. Forest Service will choose wood in all of its construction projects. Vilsack also directed the heads of other USDA agencies to adopt this practice. Moreover the Forest Service will conduct research into how to best use "green" building materials like wood.

Vilsack"s program is an effort to meet the requirements that President Obama laid out in Executive Order 13514. This order mandated that all federal agencies will attempt to make environmental improvements and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This USDA program may lead to more planting by forest owners, given that there is a slight uptick in demand for wood in construction.

The USDA also promotes tree planting through its Farm Service Agency"s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This long-running, voluntary program provides farmers assistance to enact conservation measures on their land. One of the qualifying activities for this assistance is tree planting.

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, more commonly known as the 2008 Farm Bill, also contained provisions to encourage tree planting. Chief among them is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides landowners -- including those involved in forest production -- with financial assistance to plan and institute conservation practices. The Obama administration, however, can not take credit for this since the last Farm Bill was passed in 2008. It is up for renewal in 2012.

At this time, and for the foreseeable future, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is unlikely to take up any sort of climate-related legislation. Yet, in the absence of Congressional action, the USDA has taken several actions to incentivize tree planting. That's not the ambitious plan that Obama wanted, but it provides some fulfillment of his campaign pledge. We rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Carbon Sequestration in Agriculture and Forestry FAQ.

White House, "Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance" -- Executive Order 13514-- October 5, 2009.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, press release, March 30, 2011.

U.S. Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service website - Environmental Quality Incentives Program.  

Farm Service Agency, Conservation Reserve Program Sign-up 41 Environmental Benefits Index (EBI), January 2011.

Farm Service Agency, news release, April 13, 2011.

E-mail interview with Dan Whiting, Director of Communications of the National Alliance of Forest Owners

By Catharine Richert September 3, 2009

The cap-and-trade bill advances carbon storage on farmland

With all their land, farmers can play an important role in reducing harmful carbon in the atmosphere — or so said Barack Obama on the campaign trail.

While running for president, Obama promised to create a program to encourage farmers to either plant trees on large tracts of farmland or employ cultivation practices that pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Here's how it works: Carbon dioxide plays a key role in photosynthesis. The more trees, grasses and plants that get planted, the more carbon is pulled from the atmosphere and used in the process. As climate change has accelerated, many scientists argue that planting more plants and trees is one way to reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere.

Open farmland is an ideal place for more plants and trees. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, farms can help by planting trees, creating conservation buffers — strips of grass and other greens that serve the dual purpose of protecting streams and preventing erosion — and by tilling land less frequently. (When soil is turned over, it releases carbon stored under the ground into the air. Conversely, land that remains intact can absorb more carbon).
Carbon sequestration, the term for the capture of carbon, is not new to the farming community. For example, the National Farmers Union created a voluntary program several years ago that allowed farmers to sell carbon credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange.
However, until now, there's been little government oversight. The cap-and-trade bill in the House would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to come up with a program to govern carbon sequestration efforts, including coming up with a list of practices that can reduce greenhouse gasses or sequester carbon.
While the legislation doesn't yet include new subsidies or other such traditional incentives Obama referred to in his campaign promise, Liz Friedlander, spokeswoman for the National Farmers Union, said the new guidelines will likely encourage more farmers to participate.
"They can sell these credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange or something similar," she said. "That would be the financial incentive."
So, while the cap-and-trade bill does not establish new incentives in the traditional sense, it does advance Obama's promise to expand carbon sequestration opportunities for farmers. Nevertheless, the climate debate is long from over, as the Senate has yet to take up the legislation. As a result, we put this promise at In the Works.

Our Sources

House Energy and Commerce Committee summary of the cap-and-trade bill, accessed Sept. 2, 2009

Barack Obama, Environment Fact Sheet , accessed Sept. 2, 2009

Environmental Protection Agency, carbon sequestration fact sheet , accessed Sept. 2, 2009

Environmental Protection Agency, carbon sequestration techniques on farmland , accessed Sept. 2, 2009

National Farmers Union, Climate Change fact sheet , accessed Sept. 2, 2009

Interview with Liz Friedlander, spokeswoman, National Farmers Union, Sept. 3, 2009

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