But beyond these headline-grabbing investments, the legislation recognizes a less heralded but essential part of the effort to fight climate change: nature. Or, more specifically, that given a chance, nature can be a profound ally in the fight against climate change.
“It’s historic, no doubt,” said Tom Cors, director of North American policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy. He called the new funding to protect forests and boost climate-friendly farming practices “a once-in-a-generation investment”.
Impact of climate change intensifies as US prepares to act
Money set aside for “nature-based” climate solutions includes about $20 billion for agricultural conservation and $5 billion to safeguard forests across the country, according to the Congressional Research Service.
While those numbers pale in comparison to other big-ticket items, many conservationists say such investments are critical to giving the nation a better chance of meeting long-term climate goals, and point out that caring for the earth has additional benefits. wildlife and human health.
“We can really get our money’s worth by addressing climate solutions that also address nature’s crisis,” Cors said. “Natural climate solutions are no substitute for decarbonizing our economy and energy sector. But it is a supplement that allows us to reduce emissions more than we otherwise could.
Yet it remains uncertain whether the current legislation will ultimately distribute money in the most efficient and sustainable way.
“The devil is always in the details,” said Peter Reich, a University of Minnesota researcher who has long studied the impact of global warming on forests. “Exactly how you spend the money can have marginally good impacts on slowing climate change or much better ones.”
It’s clear: to slow the Earth’s warming, humans will have to rely on major help from trees, wetlands, peatlands and other landscapes that absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide every year. But the earth also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when wildfires burn, forests are razed, permafrost melts, or wetlands are drained.
If humans mismanage the earth by recklessly razing forests or farming unsustainably, global warming emissions can increase. By contrast, adopting smarter farming practices and caring for forests in ways that reduce the risk of forest fires, for example, can make achieving climate goals more realistic.
Healthy forests, restored wetlands and undisturbed grasslands can remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. This makes the land the most important and reliable tool for carbon sequestration currently available to the world and worth protecting.
“Climate change is hurting our forests just when we need them to fight climate change,” said Jad Daley, president of the nonprofit conservation group American Forests. “If we lose what forests are currently doing for us, we don’t stand a chance. They can help us or they can hurt us, depending on how much time and energy we put into it.
In rapidly warming Minnesota, scientists are trying to plant the forests of the future
Daley noted that last year’s infrastructure spending package included significant support for reforestation initiatives, and President Biden this year signed an executive order aimed at strengthening forest management. Even so, some conservation efforts have always operated on shoestring budgets or without any dedicated funding.
“Just the fact that forests were included is really, really substantial,” he said. “I worked tirelessly on this file for 15 years. It always feels like we’re the last guest on the dinner guest list.
The Cut Inflation Act would help boost existing efforts, he said, including $700 million for a program to permanently protect forest lands through conservation easements and land acquisitions. local governments, $450 million to help private landowners manage forests more efficiently, and $100 million to fund grants for innovative and climate-friendly uses for wood.
Then there are the billions spent on helping reduce the risk of wildfires on public lands, as well as the funding to help cities scale up urban forestry programs that both absorb carbon and help create shade to fight deadly “heat islands”.
Both of these initiatives have a climate benefit, Daley said, but also help address the severe impacts that are already inflicting suffering on millions of Americans.
“It’s an environmental issue, but it’s also a moral imperative,” he said.
When she ran for mayor of Tucson in 2019, Regina Romero pledged to plant 1 million trees in the desert city by 2030, mostly in low-income communities with little canopy. She saw planting as many trees as a key climate policy, but also as a matter of equity that would help increase shade, lower utility bills and improve animal habitats.
One challenge is that the effort could cost tens of millions of dollars – money that is not readily available. Romero said she raised about $650,000 through private funding and hired an urban forestry manager, among other policies. But help from the Inflation Reduction Act, she says, could be a game-changer.
“We are absolutely ready for these funds,” Romero said in an interview, adding that she hopes the city can become a model for implementing nature-based climate solutions in urban settings. “It will absolutely help us to intensify our efforts and our objectives.”
On the agriculture side, the legislation would pour nearly $20 billion in additional funding into existing federal conservation programs that incentivize farmers and ranchers to adopt a range of climate-friendly practices, including planting cover crops. , better management of water sources and conservation of grasslands and others. landscapes that sequester carbon.
One program expected to receive an additional $8.45 billion is USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and non-industrial forest managers for efforts to “lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil, and better wildlife habitat”. , while improving farms.
Proponents note that EQIP and other existing conservation programs are oversubscribed by up to 3 to 1, and the new funding will help meet that overwhelming demand.
“We are equipping farmers, foresters and rural communities with the tools to be part of the solution,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a statement after the adoption of the bill. this room.
She noted that climate-smart agriculture, forestry and rural energy programs “are supported by more than 1,700 agricultural groups, businesses, conservationists, leading economists, local and municipal elected officials, and Professional Affiliations”.
But the bill was not universally adopted.
Silvia Secchi, an economist and geographer at the University of Iowa, said a key problem with the legislation is that it doesn’t break new ground. Instead, she said, it funds existing programs that are purely voluntary, which pay farmers for practices many are already practicing, and which offer no guarantee that any changes will lead to permanent reductions in agricultural production. greenhouse gas.
“There really is no stick here; everything is carrot,” Secchi said. She said the bill fails to compel action on key climate-related issues associated with agriculture, such as animal waste and overuse of fertilizers.
A victory at whose expense? Climate activists are grappling with a political compromise.
“Will this funding solve all the problems? No,” said Aviva Glaser, senior director of agricultural policy for the National Wildlife Federation.
But at the same time, she said the new funds could have a “transformative” impact if they help farmers and ranchers more widely adopt practices that are good not only for climate change, but also for wildlife and soil and water quality.
“We need to work with them to solve the climate crisis,” Glaser said. “And there are a lot of farmers, ranchers and foresters here who are willing to do that. They just need help. … This will provide it.
The Inflation Reduction Act does not include all the funding that proponents of nature-based solutions would like. Nor will it, on its own, protect all the landscapes that need to be protected or put the nation fully on track to meet the emissions reduction goals Biden has set.
But for many climate advocates, it beats the stalemate that has persisted for so long on Capitol Hill.
“Is that enough money? No, there must be more,” Cors said. “[But] two weeks ago there was not going to be a bill. There would be nothing. And that’s just not an option.
Sign up to receive the latest news on climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday