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. 



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