Market Forces

Barriers to tapping the potential of carbon markets for agriculture

An EDF analysis of carbon credits for rice growers shows great climate and cost-savings potential, but is that enough for farmers to participate?

In 2015, rice became the first crop for which agricultural carbon credits were valid for compliance in the California cap-and-trade system. Unfortunately, as of September 2020, no compliance credits have been generated. A newly released report by EDF explores the reasons why.

In the U.S., agricultural greenhouse gas emissions comprise approximately 10% of the economy-wide total emissions. The share of emissions from agriculture is larger for non-CO2 GHGs, making up approximately 78% of the U.S. total for nitrous oxide and 38% for methane.

Policymakers are eager to find mitigation opportunities in the agriculture sector, best evidenced by the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act, which seeks to enable voluntary credit markets for producers to mitigate climate change.

As both policymakers and producers eye the potential of the agriculture sector to grow climate solutions, it’s worth taking a closer look at both the opportunities and the challenges that must first be addressed to tap this potential.

A case study of carbon credits for rice

EDF’s work on agricultural carbon credits began in earnest in 2007 after receiving the first of several U.S. Department of Agriculture grants to investigate how to bring agricultural emissions reduction credits to market. The objective was to design crediting systems that achieve the dual benefits of reducing GHG emissions while also providing meaningful revenue opportunities to landowners.

An EDF discussion paper summarizes some of the underlying analytics of these efforts for a series of crops and geographies. One specific example from the paper — rice in California — highlights both the carbon- and cost-saving opportunities associated with conservation practices like bailing and drainage, and the challenges associated with agricultural credits as a viable abatement measure.

The opportunity: Lowering costs and emissions

Rice is a GHG-intensive crop. It emits twice the amount of emissions per calorie as wheat, three times that of maize, and accounts for 5-20% of global methane emissions. EDF’s research focused on the nation’s two most intensive rice production regions — California’s Sacramento Valley and Mid-Southern U.S. These regions produce 26% and 72% of the domestic rice supply, respectively.

Our analysis began by using a biogeochemical model, DeNitrification-DeComposition (DNDC), to assess the abatement potential for current (baseline) practices and other lower-GHG alternatives in the California rice region. This led our scientists to discover a fairly large overall mitigation potential of more than 0.6 MMt-CO2e-100/year, or approximately 15%, of overall California rice emissions.

We then developed estimates of abatement costs by practice through cost budgets and consultation with agronomists. Combining this with the GHG modeling yielded the following marginal abatement cost curves (one for each practice).

Marginal Abatement Cost Curves for Rice Practices in California. Abbreviations: N (number of fields); WF (winter flooding of rice paddies); NWF (no winter flooding). WF/NWF practices follow a 60/40% distribution, historically, and play a role in determining the scale of achievable reductions.

These graphs illustrate that for all but one practice there are negative abatement costs with averages ranging from -$29.45/acre to -$0.45/acre, suggesting potential savings for farmers from implementing practice changes. For yields, the DNDC model projected that yields would remain relatively unchanged, aside from dry seeding, for which growers would experience an average 4.5% decrease.

These findings show great promise in terms of GHG abatement potential and cost savings for producers with minimal yield impacts (dry seeding aside). So, why aren’t growers already pursuing these practices? What barriers are getting in the way?

Three key barriers to entry

Our analysis identified a few potential barriers for farmers to generate carbon credits.

  1. Weak price signals

Understanding why growers are passing up potential cost savings from practices that reduce GHG emissions requires a closer look at farm economics. Adam Jaffe offers a useful typology for the various barriers to adoption, some of which I have identified below.

Putting the practice costs and yield impacts together, we can imagine a scenario where we have a carbon market in place and a carbon price of $10/ton (the California spot price at the time this work was carried out). In this instance, we’d find that with an average 0.7 ton/acre reduction, most rice growers would be looking at potential revenue from the market of approximately 0.5% of their overall crop sales revenue (typically $1,500/acre), or 2.6% of their net profit (approximately $250/acre), not including further potential gains from the negative abatement costs of certain practices and locations.

Unfortunately, in context of the overarching farm economics, this makes for a weak incentive.

If we now imagine a new scenario with a carbon price closer to today’s social cost of carbon ($42/ton), we find that the potential revenue from participating in the market rises closer to 2% of crop sales revenue and 11% of net profit. At this price, the incentive appears to be substantially more robust, which tells us that, from a social standpoint and with a strong price signal, the market could be viable. But as it currently stands, conditions are falling short of this potential.

  1. Large transaction costs

Another critical consideration for engaging in any market is transaction costs — for GHG markets in particular, monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) costs.

Our analysis found transaction costs to be significant on a per-grower basis at approximately $14/acre for an average 1,000-acre California farm. At a market price of $10/ton, transaction costs are double the average expected return from carbon markets of $7/acre, providing a steep disincentive. Even with credits priced at the higher social cost of carbon ($42/ton), transaction costs would still equal nearly 50% of potential revenue, essentially cutting their expected financial gains in half.

Further economic modeling showed the importance of allowing a way to aggregate projects for MRV transations due to the very large third-party fees incurred to verify reductions. However, even if growers use aggregation as a means to cost-share, it will be critical to find ways to use technologies like remote sensing and automated data generation and analysis to streamline this process, realize savings and still guarantee accurate verification.

  1. Changing behavior is an obstacle in itself

Finally, behavioral factors represent a hurdle that cannot be ignored — the hidden additional cost of switching practices. This cost is difficult to quantify precisely, but we know from experience that behavior is hard to shift and farming practice changes typically require planning and close coordination with a number of consultants and business partners.

Understanding this, we performed a survey for corn and almond growers, asking how much participants in a carbon market would need to be paid to reduce fertilizer applications, and thereby decrease nitrous oxide emissions. To isolate the behavioral barriers, we designed the survey to encourage the farmers to assume no additional costs, risks or yield impacts.

Their responses ranged from $18-40/acre, when a representative farmer might only receive $7/acre in returns with a $10/t carbon price. This gap in the valuation likely represents factors such as personal or cultural values and aversion to risk and uncertainty that may be very difficult to overcome using market incentives alone[1].

Managing risk and risk perceptions is a challenge that must be addressed to see widespread uptake of mitigation practices.

Where do we go from here?

The agricultural sector has the potential to play a key role in contributing to national climate goals.

Crediting systems are just one tool to support this, but more research and pilot programs are needed to help overcome the barriers to entry, increase confidence in high-quality and cost-effective credits, and also evaluate and correct for potential inequities and injustices.

EDF is launching a new phase of research dedicated to this work, in addition to developing complementary finance and policy tools that correct for existing disincentives and inequities to create a more just and resilient food system.

With the right combination of tools in the toolbox, we can unleash the power of carbon markets to boost long-term resilience on the farm and beyond.


[1] It is important to note that all of the numbers depicted above represent averages, and there are certainly cases for which incentives are large at the individual level, and some growers may have zero or even negative switching costs, so many farmers have ripe potential for carbon market participation.


Posted in Cap and Trade, emissions, Uncategorized / Leave a comment

How the Suspension of EPA Regulations Fails to Recognize the COVID-19 Crisis and Social Costs

COVID-19’s burden on healthcare systems worldwide, a mounting death toll, and the impacts this has on people across the globe is truly alarming. In addition to the public health crisis, the pandemic has also brought most countries’ economies to their knees. Governments are making decisions today that will resonate for decades for future generations, which is why interventions must be intelligent and forward-looking, while practical, rapid and cost-effective. 

One of the macroeconomic aspects that has critical ramifications is determining what is deemed essential, in terms of jobs and services. Food, health care, and emergency services are clearly essential. And while policymakers can debate the merits of other positions, make no mistake, pollution monitoring and enforcement are also critical.

EPA’s Suspension of Enforcement

On March 26, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would suspend enforcement against violations of a broad set of environmental regulations, with no end date. This announcement effectively provides companies across the United States with a waiver from clean air and other public health protections, and has massive implications for human health at a time when keeping citizens healthy is paramount. We know air pollution causes diabetes, heart and lung diseases and worsens asthma, putting people at higher risk of severe effects of COVID-19. In fact, recent analyses find areas with high air pollution levels before this crisis reported higher COVID-19 death rates.

The naive expectation is that companies will continue to abide by the law and self-report any pollution amid the pandemic. This ignores well-established economics literature demonstrating how self-regulation does not work. Even if it is argued that reducing regulation will ease economic burdens at a time when it should be redirected for economic stimulus – that is also a fallacy that is undercut by the current administration’s analysis.

The Clear Benefits of Environmental Regulation

Every year, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) performs a benefit-cost analysis (BCA) of all government agencies and federal rulings. The table below is taken from the most recent OMB report that did a thorough analysis and took a retrospective look over a 10 year period. [n.b, slated for release in 2017, this report was not made public until 2019. OMB only released one report during the Trump administration years, which was one-fifth of the length of previous ones, only did single-year BCAs, and was released two days before Christmas in 2019.]

Estimates of the Total Annual Benefits and Costs of Major Federal Rules (For Which Both Benefits and Costs Have Been Estimated) by Agency, October 1, 2006 – September 30, 2016 (billions of 2020 dollars). Sorted from best to worst Benefit-Cost Ratio, figures rounded to the nearest billion.

Agency# of RulesBenefitsCostsBenefit-Cost Ratio
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)39215 to 76250 to 61 4.3 to 12.6
Joint DOT and EPA449 to 8612 to 22 4.2 to 3.9
Department of Labor1011 to 303 to 7 3.6 to 4.2
Department of Health and Human Services187 to 352 to 7 3.1 to 5.0
Department of Energy2723 to 449 to 13 2.6 to 3.3
Department of Transportation (DOT)2725 to 459 to 17 2.6 to 2.6
Department of Justice32 to 51 to 1 2.1 to 4.0
Department of Agriculture51 to 21 to 1 1.2 to 1.4
Department of Homeland Security41 to 21 to 1 0.8 to 1.6

The table above underscores the crucial role EPA regulations play in human health and benefits to society. For each dollar spent on EPA’s programs, Americans derive a $4-13 benefit in the form of improved livelihoods. In general, rules exhibiting the greatest benefit-cost ratio relate to air pollutants, which have a great deal of interplay in terms of at-risk populations for COVID-19 and associated respiratory impacts. An EPA report focusing on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 finds a central estimate of a 32$ return for each dollar invested. Critically, these analyses do not monetize all of the health benefits of regulations, and thus these figures likely undercount the true benefits to society (the costs, however, are much more certain).

In terms of their benefit-cost ratio, EPA and major environmental rules result in benefits to the public that far outweigh their costs to government and industry. These rules are designed to preserve and protect human life and ecosystems. Removing protections presents a tremendous social cost.

Of course, EPA’s ability to enforce regulations during a pandemic has its limits. We wouldn’t want to put anyone at risk of contracting coronavirus. Still, there are ways to continue enforcement. EPA could redesign monitoring initiatives to continue digitally in places where this isn’t already the case. But announcing a sweeping, indefinite suspension that ignores most of what we know from behavioral economics and human nature makes little sense.

While the future is full of uncertainty, and economic turmoil is already here, we need to think carefully and critically about how to best protect people, the environment, and avoid slipping into a deep recession. Removing EPA’s ability to provide health protections to society during a public health crisis is lunacy. Doing it in the name of cutting costs is entirely misguided, as each dollar taken away results in an additional $4 to $13 in social costs.

Posted in Clean Air Act, Uncategorized / Leave a comment

What Night-time Lights Tell us about the World and its Inhabitants

Night viewMost people are familiar with the iconic image of North Korea at night—Pyongyang stands as a beacon of light amid of what looks almost like a large body of water—but what is, in fact, land draped in complete darkness. That imagery revealed details about what was previously unknowable due to the country’s cloak of secrecy—its meager electricity use and level of poverty. My colleagues Daniel Zavala-Araiza, Gernot Wagner and I took an even deeper look at how well night-time lights can account for other measures of socio-economic activity in a new article published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

I got interested in what these images could tell us back in 2012 when I started attending the Geo for Good conference, an annual event hosted by Google where nonprofits and researchers learn how to use geospatial tools such as Earth Engine. Gernot, Daniel and I started wondering what interesting applications we could explore with night-time lights data, and see what we could learn by examining the entire 21-year record of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) at the country level. We took that dataset and compared it to a much wider scope of other datasets. By using a distributed, parallelized platform such as Earth Engine, the scope of this research and our analysis is able to be larger than prior studies.

The prevalence and magnitude of night-time light is an alternative, standardized, and relatively unbiased way to gather information about important socio-economic indicators like CO2 emissions, GDP, and other measures that would in some cases be unknowable. For example, these data helped estimate the size of the informal economy of Mexico in a 2009 study by Ghosh et al.

We’re hoping that by combining all of these methods, data sets, and tools, researchers can develop an even better understanding of how we relate to the environment, so we can ultimately become better stewards of it. Google Earth Engine, Hadoop and Spark are powerful examples of such tools —our hope is that our fellow researchers will ask and pursue new questions, so we can advance the conversation even further.

Posted in International, Technology, Uncategorized / Leave a comment

Alternative Facts: 6 Ways President Trump’s Energy Plan Doesn’t Add Up

Photos by lovnpeace and KarinKarin

This blog was co-authored with Jonathan Camuzeaux and is the first in an occasional series on the economics of President Trump’s Energy Plan

Just 60 days into Trump’s presidency, his administration has wasted no time in pursuing efforts to lift oil and gas development restrictions and dismantle a range of environmental protections to push through his “America First Energy Plan.” An agenda that he claims will allow the country to, “take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

Putting aside the convenient roundness of this number, the sheer size of it makes this policy sound appealing, but buyer beware. Behind the smoke and mirrors of this $50 trillion is a report commissioned by the industry-backed Institute for Energy Research (IER) that lacks serious economic rigor. The positive projections from lifting oil and gas restrictions come straight from the IER’s advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance. Several economists reviewed the assessment and agreed: “this is not academic research and would never see the light of day in an academic journal.”

Here is why Trump’s plan promises a future it can’t deliver:

1. No analytical back up for almost $20 trillion of the $50 trillion.
Off the bat, it’s clear that President Trump’s Plan relies on flawed math. What’s actually estimated in the report is $31.7 trillion, not $50 trillion, based on increased revenue from oil, gas and coal production over 37 years (this total includes estimated increases in GDP, wages, and tax revenue). The other roughly half of this “$50 trillion” number appears to be conjured out of thin air.

2. Inflated fuel prices
An average oil price of $100 per barrel and of $5.64 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas (Henry Hub spot price) was used to calculate overall benefits. Oil prices are volatile: in the last five years, they reached a high of $111 per barrel and a low of $29 per barrel. They were below $50 a barrel a few days ago. A $5.64 gas price is not outrageous, but gas prices have mostly been below $5 for several years. By using inflated oil and gas prices and multiplying the benefits out over 37 years, the author dismisses any volatility or price impacts from changes in supply. There’s no denying oil and gas prices could go up in the future, but they could also go down, and the modeling in the IER report is inadequate at best when it comes to tackling this issue.

3. Technically vs. economically recoverable resources
The IER report is overly optimistic when it comes to the amount of oil and gas that can be viably produced on today’s restricted federal lands. Indeed, the report assumes that recoverable reserves can be exploited to the last drop over the 37-year period based on estimates from a Congressional Budget Office report. A deeper look reveals that these estimates are actually for “technically recoverable resources,” or the amount of oil and gas that can be produced using current technology, industry practice, and geologic knowledge. While these resources are deemed accessible from a technical standpoint, they cannot always be produced profitably. This is an important distinction as it is the aspect that differentiates technically recoverable from economically recoverable resources. The latter is always a smaller subset of what is technically extractable, as illustrated by this diagram from the Energy Information Administration. The IER report ignores basic industry knowledge to present a rosier picture.

4. Lack of discounting causes overestimations
When economists evaluate the economic benefits of a policy that has impacts well into the future, it is common practice to apply a discount rate to get a sense of their value to society in today’s terms. Discounting is important to account for the simple fact that we generally value present benefits more than future benefits. The IER analysis does not include any discounting and therefore overestimates the true dollar-benefits of lifting oil and gas restrictions. For example, applying a standard 5% discount rate to the $31.7 trillion benefits would reduce the amount to $12.2 trillion.

5. Calculated benefits are not additional to the status quo
The IER report suggests that the $31.7 trillion would be completely new and additional to the current status quo. This is false. One must compare these projections against a future scenario in which the restrictions are not lifted. Currently, the plan doesn’t examine a future in which these oil and gas restrictions remain and still produce large economic benefits, while protecting the environment.

6. No consideration of environmental costs
Another significant failure of IER’s report: even if GDP growth was properly estimated, it would not account for the environmental costs associated with this uptick in oil and gas development and use. This is not something that can be ignored, and any serious analysis would address it.

We know drilling activities can lead to disastrous outcomes that have real environmental and economic impacts. Oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez have demonstrated that tragic events happen and come with a hefty social, environmental and hard dollar price tag. The same can be said for natural gas leaks, including a recent one in Aliso Canyon, California. And of course, there are significant, long-term environmental costs to increased emissions of greenhouse gases including more extreme weather, damages to human health and food scarcity to name a few.

The Bottom Line: The $50 Trillion is An Alternative Fact but the Safeguards America will Lose are Real
These factors fundamentally undercut President Trump’s promise that Americans will reap the benefits of a $50 trillion dollar future energy industry. Most importantly, the real issue is what is being sacrificed if we set down this path. That is, a clean energy future where our country can lead the way in innovation and green growth; creating new, long-term industries and high-paying jobs, without losing our bedrock environmental safeguards. If the administration plans to upend hard-fought restrictions that provide Americans with clean air and water, we expect them to provide a substantially more defensible analytical foundation.

Posted in Markets 101, Politics, Trump's energy plan / Leave a comment

America needs critical energy data in a “post-fact” world: 2 quick examples

This post originally appeared on EDF’s Voices blog.

We learned earlier this month that scientists are rushing to save critical climate data on government websites before the Trump administration takes over in January. They fear that such data may be deleted and forever lost, and it’s not hard to see why.

The incoming administration has announced plans to roll back existing climate change initiatives and there have been proposals to cut research programs that support a broad range of scientific expertise, such as weather prediction critical to farmers and to states vulnerable to major disasters.

In addition to science-based climate data, however, there is concern that other critical information and analyses under the purview of agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy may be imperiled early next year. Unbeknownst to many – including, perhaps, to the president-elect and his circle of insiders – all these datasets benefit a broad range of sectors that rely on solid economic forecasting.

Here are just two datasets that are absolutely central to the work economists and analysts do to help industry and other decision-makers interpret energy opportunities and challenges in a rapidly changing world.

1. Energy forecasts: companies depend on them

The Annual Energy Outlook reports produced by the Energy Information Administration – a 30-year-old, independent office within the Energy Department – offers economic and energy forecasts with data invaluable to the transportation and manufacturing sectors, among others. Researchers, regulators and policymakers use them, too.

It includes data on economy-wide energy consumption and electricity prices all the way down to minute information such as carbon emissions from residential clothing dryers. Companies use the report to inform energy cost projections as they strategize and forecast business operations.

This way, an aluminum smelting company that uses a very energy-intensive process, for example, can anticipate changes in energy prices and make decisions accordingly.

We already heard about a proposal to cut NASA’s climate research funding, so it’s no mystery we also worry about how a report such as the Annual Energy Outlook could be affected by a wider crackdown on scientific and economic research and data generation.

Notably, EIA was part of a controversial questionnaire the Trump administration recently sent the Energy Department.

2. Cost comparisons: help investors be smart

The cost of renewable energy is a constant source of debate and has a direct impact on innovation and investment. A utility that needs to add generation, for example, must remain informed about how the operational costs of wind turbines compare with those of a natural gas-fired power plant.

The Energy Department’s prestigious National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides a terrific amount of research on the costs of this and other sources of renewable energy, feeding them into tools such as the Transparent Cost Database.

These estimates help investors as well as consumers evaluate the cost of renewable energy sources in direct comparison to fossil fuels in an unbiased way. The outcome is smarter and more informed decisions.

Our national labs would be overseen by Texas Gov. Rick Perry if he’s confirmed as the Trump administration’s secretary of energy. The governor, who lacks the science credentials of past energy secretaries, once said he would eliminate the agency altogether.

So why the panic over data?

We know that many of the people picked for the Trump cabinet so far openly question climate science, or science in general, and that several of the nominees who will oversee agencies producing such data have a history of putting the interest of the fossil fuel industry ahead of progress on clean energy.

Beyond that, potential budget cuts are looming. Government agency heads opposed to climate action or investments in renewable energy could easily starve the programs that maintain, update and share data with the public if such information no longer fits the administration’s agenda.

Scientists are thus taking steps to download data in preparation for the day when access may be interrupted.

But a country needs hard facts and sound evidence to make smart decisions about its energy and economic future. So we need to continue to lean heavily on the apolitical data that hardworking researchers in government produce for our industry, farmers, entrepreneurs, local and state policymakers, and world-renowned researchers.

Perhaps more than ever before, we must protect and defend this vital information.

Posted in Climate science, Politics / 1 Response

Fossil fuels haven’t lost the race, yet. Here’s the full story.

Source: Flickr/Nick HumphriesA recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance article made a splash saying that fossil fuels “just lost the race against renewables.” It included a striking chart, depicting changes in power capacity additions with very clear diverging trends.

Although this would be a delightful turn of events, we should be wary of putting the cart before the horse.

What may be lost on many readers is the fact that Bloomberg bases its story on power capacity, rather than actual power generation. Read More »

Posted in Uncategorized / Leave a comment