Supreme Court Puts Clean Power Plan on Hold, but Clean Agriculture Can Move Forward

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Peter Lehner

The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.

Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.

Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.

Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.

Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2.  The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.  

A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.

Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.

Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.

Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions. 

When Will My Leftover Turkey Power My Electric Car: A Post Thanksgiving Reflection on the Promise and Challenge of Food Waste Bans

Posted on December 1, 2014 by Adam Kahn

Food is a big part of why Thanksgiving is my family’s favorite holiday.  Over the years, we have tried to eat sensibly and sustainably, and to waste less food. But on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I suspect we are not alone as we contemplate the wilted salad, the wan sweet potatoes, and the last of the now not-so-attractive leftover turkey.  Indeed, one recent study by NRDC estimated that Americans throw away 40% of their food. 

In the last few years, declining capacities at conventional solid waste disposal facilities, combined with the realization that there are more beneficial things to do with food waste and other organics than to throw them in a landfill or burn them have led to partial food or organic waste bans in California, ConnecticutMassachusetts, Vermont, as well as in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco,  and New York.

Of course, these ambitious waste segregation programs require that there be an alternative location to reuse or process these materials.  Historically, organics have been transformed into compost or animal feed.  Unfortunately, the volume of the waste stream is far in excess of what existing, generally small composting facilities can handle.  Larger facilities that might be able to increase capacity are generally located far from urban and suburban centers that generate the waste.  Many regulators have recognized the need to create an infrastructure to handle this material but a more comprehensive national program is needed if we are really going to stop throwing our food into landfills.

One of the most promising technologies to manage the large amount of organic waste generated near city centers is anaerobic digestion (“AD”). AD systems use anaerobic bacteria to break down organic matter into methane and carbon dioxide. The resulting methane can generate energy in place of traditional fossil fuels.  A large-scale system might generate as much as 8-10 MW of electricity (enough to power 8-10,000 homes), while diverting thousands of tons of organics from landfills.  And as a bonus, the residual materials can be used as compost or soil amendments.  AD systems are well established at wastewater treatment plants and are emerging at certain large agricultural operations.

But there have not been many large scale AD systems designed to handle the anticipated flood of organics that will soon be separated from the general waste stream.   Part of the problem may be one of raw material supply – a single large AD system may need hundreds of thousands of tons of segregated organic materials annually.   The waste bans may help develop a reliable supply.   Siting of these facilities presents other challenges.  Some states, most notably Massachusetts have amended regulations to make it easier (though certainly not “easy”) to permit these facilities, at least on a state level. Hopefully other regulators will follow suit, allowing market forces to coalesce and expand what is now a nascent industry. Otherwise the organic material diverted from the solid waste stream by well-intentioned laws and rules will pile up in unpleasant ways.