Market Forces

Creating Incentives for Agricultural GHG Abatement

One of the goals of EDF’s Ecosystems work is to provide farmers with revenue opportunities in reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Under AB32, California’s landmark legislation aimed at reducing GHG emissions, regulated entities may purchase carbon offsets to meet up to 8% of their obligations. Over the past six years, EDF has worked closely with growers to capitalize on the anticipated demand for these offsets, by developing protocols that will allow landowners to generate and sell agricultural offsets. On March 28, we reach a milestone in these efforts: the California Air Resources Board will host a workshop to begin a rulemaking process to consider the adoption of an offset protocol EDF has developed with the American Carbon Registry, crediting rice producers for GHG abatement practices.

We’ve put a great deal of work into understanding and piloting a myriad of rice farming techniques, while studying their implications for GHG emissions. A major conclusion from our analysis is that there exists a subset of viable alternative practices for rice producers in California with potential agronomic, economic and environmental benefits. The ones we’ve decided to focus on for our offset protocol are: baling, dry seeding, and early drainage of fields before harvest.

Agricultural activities account for an estimated 12% of global GHG emissions – the majority of these arise from sources of nitrous oxide and methane gases, composing ~60% and ~50% of the global total, respectively (as of IPCC AR4). Rice cultivation accounts for 5-20% of worldwide methane emissions; much of it is emitted as a byproduct of organic decomposition under flooded paddies. California’s goal to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 through its cap-and-trade program (AB32) provides an opportunity for rice farmers to help the state meet its reduction goal.

There are multiple approaches for rice farmers to reduce GHG emissions. Some of these practices can be carried out before the harvest and others post-harvest. We’ve carried out some in-depth analysis on the various options, to better understand the incentives and revenue possibilities we will be encouraging through our policy work – we have found that there are a handful of ways that farmers can reduce GHG emissions while maintaining yields, earning some revenue for their efforts, and potentially save on costs in some circumstances.

Our analysis builds on a prior study by our partners Applied Geosolutions, UC Davis and the California Rice Commission that estimates GHG emissions and yields for the majority of rice producing acreage in the state. They use the DeNitrification-DeComposition (DNDC) model, simulating 6,316 rice fields for 16 farming practices. In our analysis, we first estimate the potential greenhouse gas abatement of a suite of specific practices: dry seeding the rice fields, baling harvest residue, and hydroperiod adjustments (draining of fields in midseason, before harvest and/or reducing winter flooding).

We then tabulate the cost of each management practice through a combination of literature, farmer and farm advisor consultation and combine these with abatement estimates to generate marginal abatement cost curves for each practice. Our preliminary results indicate a wide variability in abatement costs, depending on farming conditions. Of course, this is before factoring in the role of a carbon credit.

Unfortunately, not all of the practices we’ve studied are tenable in the Californian setting. One practice (midseason drainage of the fields) is accompanied with a significant decrease in yield and therefore does not lend itself well to the Sacramento Valley climate. In the case of stopping winter flooding, there could be negative habitat impacts for waterfowl that use this ecosystem as a feeding ground. Striving to understand such risks has been crucial in determining the extent to which producers will consider the new incentives created through the market.

Because the practices listed above have not been widely adopted, they are key opportunities for the generation of offsets.  To better understand adoption rates, EDF is conducting further research in determining the quantitative and qualitative barriers that are limiting farmers from adopting such farming methods.

California will be one of the first rice producing regions in the U.S. to present abatement opportunities in conjunction with a carbon market. Combining economic principles such as abatement cost curves with biogeochemical models (e.g. DNDC) is useful in studying such opportunities. Further, the ability to simulate practices at the field level is central to understanding the economic potential of offset protocols granting agricultural producers access to carbon markets. In turn, this can create new incentives to abate GHG emissions from agriculture while potentially providing new sources of revenue to landowners – potentially a win-win situation.

We are excited that Thursday’s California Air Resources Board workshop will kick off the rulemaking process and that farmers can soon benefit from these interesting prospects.

Also posted in California, Cap and Trade / Leave a comment

Geoengineering: ignore economics and governance at your peril

Cross-posted from Climate 411.

How serious is global warming? Here’s one indication: the first rogue entrepreneurs have begun testing the waters on geoengineering, as Naomi Klein laments in her must-read New York Times op-ed.

Sadly, Klein misses two important points.

First, it’s not a question of if but when humanity will be compelled to use geoengineering, unless we change course on our climate policies (or lack thereof). Second, all of this calls for more research and a clear, comprehensive governance effort on the part of governments and serious scientists – not a ban of geoengineering that we cannot and will not adhere to. (See point number one.)

Saying that we ought not to tinker with the planet on a grand scale – by attempting to create an artificial sun shield, for example – won’t make it so. Humanity got into this mess thanks to what economists call the “free rider” effect. All seven billion of us are free riders on the planet, contributing to global warming in various ways but paying nothing toward the damage it causes. No wonder it’s so hard to pass a sensible cap or tax on carbon pollution. Who wants to pay for something that they’re used to doing for free – never mind that it comes at great cost to those around them?

It gets worse: Turns out the same economic forces pushing us to do too little on the pollution front are pushing us toward a quick, cheap fix – a plan B.

Enter the Strangelovian world of geoengineering – tinkering with the whole planet. It comes in two distinct flavors:

  • Sucking carbon out of the atmosphere;
  • Creating an artificial sun shield for the planet.

The first involves reversing some of the same processes that cause global warming in the first place. Instead of taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them, we would now take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it under ground. That sounds expensive, and it is. Estimates range from $40 to $200 and more per ton of carbon dioxide – trillions of dollars to solve the problem.

That brings us to the second, scary flavor, which David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls “chemotherapy” for the planet. The direct price tag to create an artificial sun shield: pennies per ton of carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of intervention an island nation, or a billionaire greenfinger, could pay for.

You can see where economics enters the picture. The first form of geoengineering won’t happen unless we place a serious price on carbon pollution. The second may be too cheap to resist.

In a recent Foreign Policy essay, Harvard’s Martin Weitzman and I called the forces pushing us toward quick and dirty climate modification “free driving.” Crude attempts to, say, inject sulfur particles into the atmosphere to counter carbon dioxide already there would be so cheap it might as well be free. We are talking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than tackling the root cause of the problem.

Given the climate path we are on, it’s only a matter of time before this “free driver” effect takes hold. Imagine a country badly hit by adverse climate changes: India’s crops are wilting; China’s rivers are drying up. Millions of people are suffering. What government, under such circumstances, would not feel justified in taking drastic action, even in defiance of world opinion?

Once we reach that tipping point, there won’t be time to reverse warming by pursuing collective strategies to move the world onto a more sustainable growth path. Instead, speed will be of the essence, which will mean trying untested and largely hypothetical techniques like mimicking volcanoes and putting sulfur particles in the stratosphere to create an artificial shield from the sun.

That artificial sunscreen may well cool the earth. But what else might it do? Floods somewhere, droughts in other places, and a host of unknown and largely unknowable effects in between. That’s the scary prospect. And we’d be experimenting on a planetary scale, in warp speed.

That all leads to the second key point: we ought to do research in geoengineering, and do so guided by sensible governance principles adhered to be all. We cannot let research get ahead of public opinion and government oversight. The geoengineering governance initiative convened by the British Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and the Environmental Defense Fund is a necessary first step in the right direction.

Is there any hope in this doomsday scenario? Absolutely. Country after country is following the trend set by the European Union to institute a cap or price on carbon pollution. Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and also California are already – or will soon be – limiting their carbon pollution. India has a dollar-a-ton coal tax. China is experimenting with seven regional cap-and-trade systems.

None of these is sufficient by itself. But let’s hope this trend expands –fast – to include the really big emitters like the whole of China and the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, and others. Remember, the question is not if the “free driver” effect will kick in as the world warms. It’s when.

Also posted in International, Politics / Leave a comment

Single-action bias

We all want to do something, anything. We don’t just want to sit idle and watch events unfold around us. Call it “action bias.”

Then there’s “single-action bias.”

We all want to do something, anything, but once we’ve done that one thing, we move on. For something as intractable and complex as global warming, that’s a real problem.

Yes, replace your inefficient incandescent light bulb with more efficient compact fluorescent ones, but don’t believe for a second that single action solved the problem.

Recycle. Just don’t think it’ll stop global warming. Make the planet notice.

For daily musings like these, take a look at EDF economist Gernot Wagner’s personal blog.

Also posted in 1000 words, Politics / 2 Responses

Not green or brown, just good economics

Lord Stern famously calls global warming “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.” It would only be natural for any introductory economics textbook to prepare budding economists to address this problem.

You would think.

Yoram Bauman, otherwise known as the Stand-up Economist, put together a sobering report: Grading economics textbooks on climate change.

Only four of sixteen books received As.

The others are either out of date, outright wrong, or worse.

It’s frustrating that even the best texts seem to banish the biggest market failure into sidebars or special chapters toward the end. Sadly that’s the typical treatment of environmental issues in introductory economics classes: “First, let’s discuss all the reasons why the economy is doing just fine. Then, if there’s time at the end, we’ll cover some exceptions to those rules.”

Krugman and Wells’s text appears to be the only one that integrates climate considerations into a key chapter, one on “long-run economic growth.” That’s not entirely surprising, given Paul Krugman’s other writings on the topic, but it’s good to know it starts with the introductory text. It would be even better if other texts followed that lead.

(More takes: Mankiw and Env-Econ)

Also posted in Markets 101 / Leave a comment

Two proposals and a reality check

by Mikel JasoYesterday’s New York Times published three terrific op-eds worth a second thought.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan and David Victor argue that, “To Fight Climate Change, Clear the Air.” Carbon is the main climate culprit, but we can’t ignore and might as well start with tackling the other greenhouse gas pollutants.

Bruce Usher argues that, “On Global Warming, Start Small.” Not too small, mind you. Individual volunteerism won’t do. But U.S. energy policy is made in the states, and many states are making significant progress on sensible policy measures.

Jack Hedin provides “An Almanac of Extreme Weather” from his Minnesota family farm and an important wake-up call for why we are doing what we doing. In the end, “climate instability”—the extreme fluctuations around a warming climate—may prove at least as damaging as the slow but steady upward trend in temperatures.

Also posted in International, Politics / Leave a comment

Bending the curve

Cutting emissions is about creating opportunities for new, clean energy sources, not about crashing economies.

The Great Recession saw a crash with the most severe consequences for employment and other measures of economic output since the Great Depression. Emissions responded in kind.

Pierre Friedlingstein and a slew of co-authors provide an “Update on CO2 emissions” in the latest Nature Geoscience (HT: BBC):  Global CO2 emissions declined by 1.3% in 2009. No surprise there, although the decline was lower than projected. (A closer look at the breakdown doesn’t come as much of a surprise, either: U.S. emissions declined by almost 7% in line with miserable economic figures. Chinese emissions increased once again, by +8%, in line with its continuing strong economic growth.)

The disconcerting part: global emissions are scheduled to shoot right back up in 2010 and then some at +3%.

(C) Nature Geoscience

The atmosphere barely notices these kinks in the general trend line, which continues to march up unabated. Crashing economies doesn’t do anyone any good. The charge is to decouple emissions from economic development and start bending the curve [PDF].

Posted in Climate science / Leave a comment