This blog is the sixth in a series, “The ABCs of the AJP.”
One of the key underpinnings of the case for climate legislation is the idea that natural and working lands will suffer without swift and meaningful action. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) proposes to “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure – our lands, forests, wetlands, watersheds, and coastal and ocean resources.” But what should that look like? And how will the new administration find common ground with lawmakers who fear that forest conservation can only come at the expense of rural communities and the industries that rely on these resources?
The answer: job creation. The AJP calls for $10 billion to create a new “Civilian Climate Corps” to conserve public lands and waters. If history is any indication, this has the potential to be enormously successful, given that its analog, the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, at one time provided work for up to five percent of the male population of the United States. Directing so much investment to rural communities and wilderness areas has the significant potential to garner bipartisan support for the AJP’s ultimate goal of advancing climate solutions.
The President has also signaled that incentive programs may be part of the mix. Just last week, the administration pledged to expand the Conservation Reserve Program, adding four million acres of farmland that would remain untouched for the next ten years. The hope is that farmers will “rent” their land to the federal government by not farming it to revive soil quality and minimize runoff. Environmental groups have also called on the President to implement similar incentive plans for privately-owned forests, which the AJP could easily adopt. Though these programs are both costly and only temporary, including them could help bridge the gap between rural America and Washington.
Wildfires are also hot on the agenda. The AJP says that the President is “calling on Congress to invest in protection from extreme wildfires.” The AJP also endorses a bill introduced late last year in Congress, the Outdoor Restoration Force Act (ORFA), which proposes up-front investment of $120 billion in wildfire and climate change resilience projects, forest health, watershed restoration, and invasive species removal. ORFA also seeks to create or sustain over two million jobs in rural areas, which would reinforce the AJP’s commitment to bring everyone to the table.
Through the Civilian Climate Corps and endorsement of ORFA, the AJP affirms the role that the nation’s forests and natural and working lands can play in climate mitigation. Yet there is still considerable debate among policymakers and other stakeholders concerning how much preservation of natural and working lands may be relied upon to achieve carbon neutrality targets.
For example, a bill that advanced through a key legislative committee in California last week would cap the amount of reductions that carbon removal technologies, including nature-based solutions, may contribute to achieving the state’s 2045 carbon neutrality target to no more than 10 percent, mandating that at least 90 percent of the target must be met through emissions reductions. It would also exclude “technology based solutions,” “such as direct air capture or electricity generation with carbon capture and sequestration,” from qualifying towards the 90 percent of emission reductions.
Whether nature-based solutions would be sufficient to bridge the gap to California’s carbon neutrality target remains an open question, as it is still unclear whether natural and working lands will be a net source or sink of emissions. Consider that, just last year, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) reported that 112 million tons of carbon dioxide was emitted due to wildfires. That is more than one third of CARB’s entire 2020 budget of annual emissions from capped sectors under its Cap-and-Trade program. If recent years’ wildfires are indeed the new normal, then we may anticipate that, without aggressive measures to improve forest health and reverse recent losses, California’s forests may ultimately contribute little to the 2045 target.
Initiatives to sequester carbon in U.S. forests are set against the backdrop of growing support for preservation of tropical forests. As one example, the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition recently announced its aim to mobilize at least $1 billion to protect tropical forests in biodiverse nations. The LEAF Coalition proposes a “jurisdictional” approach to protection of tropical forests, where payments would be made to national or sub-national jurisdictions to enable their own forest protection programs, in contrast to the “project-based” approach, where a company or foreign nation pays an individual project developer to enhance carbon sequestration on its lands.
Anticipating criticisms that funding of tropical forest conservation might be relied upon to allow companies and nations to avoid reducing their own emissions, the LEAF Coalition announced that participating companies have all committed to making deep cuts in their own value chains; their contributions to promote reductions through the Coalition’s efforts will be in addition to, and not in lieu of, those cuts. In fact, private-sector buyers must publicly commit to science-based targets or equivalent verified reduction targets consistent with the Paris Agreement’s warming goals, before taking title to any reductions. This reflects a significant evolution in private-sector efforts to move beyond “offsetting” as the basis for leveraging private support to avoid tropical deforestation.
How the AJP targets investment in carbon reductions through forest conservation remains to be defined. Landowners, farmers and companies may have opportunities to work with the Biden Administration to advance new public-private participation models that move beyond the project-based framework that has dominated forest carbon projects to-date and mobilize federal and private investment at the scale needed to maintain our natural and working lands as a net sink – rather than source – of emissions.