Carbon credits require proof
Orchards sequester carbon dioxide, but to benefit from cap and trade systems, growers will need research to back up their claims.
The majority of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants occurs on the eastern half of the United States.
Tree fruit growers need to be proactive in order to avoid being impacted by government measures to address global warming, says Quincy, Washington, fruit grower and packer Warren Morgan. Although trees in orchards and forests sequester carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases implicated in global warming, the tree fruit industry needs research to prove what's happening in the typical orchard environment, he said.
"If we don't have any research, there's no basis for the claims we would be making about sequester-ing carbon, and no one's going to give us credit," he warned.
In 2008, the Washington State legislature passed the Climate and Green Jobs Bill, requiring the Depart-ment of Ecology to develop a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Washington is also a partner in the Western Climate Initiative, a regional effort by eight western states and four Canadian provinces to reduce emissions.
Morgan was a member of the Agriculture Sector Carbon Market Workgroup, a panel of agricultural producers, economists, environmentalists, government agencies, and scientists, which was formed a year ago to make recommendations to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire's Climate Action Team about how Washington agriculture could participate in a regional "cap and trade" system. Cap and trade allows a carbon emission in one location to be mitigated by an emission reduction or carbon sequestration in another location (see "Cap and trade").
Morgan said the Ag Workgroup members were emphatically reminded that there was to be no debate of whether or not human activities were causing irreversible climate change. "The answer was yes, and the discussion was over.
"We, as a society, have reached a consensus that global warming is taking place because of man's activities," he said. "It has not been proven to be an indisputable scientific fact. Rather, it's a consensus of scientific opinion, and that's nothing really. They may prove to be right. They may prove to be wrong."
The workgroup met for five full days last year and reviewed copious volumes of research relating to agricultural activities that might prove effective in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Its final report concluded that farmers could play a positive and potentially profitable role in combating climate change.
Current agricultural practices in Washington are estimated to capture more carbon than is released during farming, and the report highlighted strategies to further reduce emissions and capture more greenhouse gases, such as reducing nitrogen fertilizer use, making fewer passes in the field, and implementing precision farming practices. Carbon offsets should be allowed for practices or technologies that lead to storage of carbon, given that they are "additional, measurable, and verifiable," the workgroup concluded.
Carbon offsets are created when an entity emits fewer gases than allowed, and it can sell the extra as a credit. Those who will benefit from carbon offsets will need research to back up their claims, Morgan said. Soil organic matter would have to be sampled and increases noted over time. Research would be required to demonstrate how much carbon dioxide a tree sequesters each year, depending on its size and rate of growth, etc. The burden of proof would be on the grower.
"Those are the kinds of things you're going to have to come up with in order to back up your claims and sell a carbon credit into the market," he said.
But how much will carbon credits be worth if Washington implements a cap and trade system? Carbon credits have traded for as little as $2 to $7 per ton on the Chicago Climate Exchange. If, for instance, they're worth $5 an acre, the owner of pasture who is renting out the land for $25 an acre might feel an additional $5 is worthwhile, Morgan said. "But when you have operating costs like we have in tree fruit, an extra $5 is pizza money."
The reason tree fruit growers need to participate is not because it's going to make them any money, he added. "The reason we're going to have to do it is we may get caught in the crosshairs if we don't."
Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas most commonly discussed, but greenhouse gases are also whatever the government says they are, Morgan said.
The Western Climate Initiative covers nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride. Carbon dioxide is used as the standard and the other gases are converted to carbon dioxide equivalents. For example, just one ton of nitrous oxide emissions is considered to be equivalent to 467 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Nitrous oxide is produced naturally in soils through denitrification and nitrification. Emissions can be increased by a variety of agricultural practices, including the use of synthetic and organic fertilizers, production of nitrogen-fixing crops, and cultivation of the soil, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"At some point, it is possible that government agencies are going to come to you and say, 'So, here's what we think you guys are going to have to pay per acre for your carbon allowance in order to keep farming," Morgan said. "And if you can't defend yourself with research quantifying your greenhouse gas emissions, what are you going to do?"
The easiest way for growers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions might be to use less nitrogen fertilizer to grow the same crop, Morgan said. "You've just got to protect yourself."
After serving on the workgroup, Morgan was left wondering if any of the proposals would actually reduce the rate of global warming, let alone stop it. "How much of this is just window dressing to make us feel better?" he asked. "What's actually going to be solved by this? After going through this exercise and looking at the whole thing, the bottom line is, if man is causing irreversible global warming, we're toast. We do not have the technology available to us today to maintain the standard of living we're accustomed to without emitting a lot of carbon."
Morgan said he's concerned that government policies are driven by a fundamental lack of understanding of science, and that a cap and trade system in Washington would be a waste of time and money. Washington's power generation (mostly hydropower) is an insignificant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the state's emissions are related to transportation (cars, trucks, trains, planes, and boats).
The relatively low emissions in the Pacific Northwest, compared with other areas of the country that derive power mainly from coal and natural gas, can be seen on a map of the United States developed by scientists involved in the Vulcan Project at Purdue University, Indiana. They were able to precisely quantify and map fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions at the scale of individual factories, power plants, roadways, and neighborhoods. The project's maps can be seen at www.youtube.com/watch?v= eJpj8UUMTaI&feature=email.
At the global level, it is estimated that the number of cars on the planet will increase from the 700 million that exist today to 3 billion by 2050, with much of the increase in poorer countries. Without enormous advances in automotive or power-generating technology, the earth's atmosphere will be getting a tremendous new dose of carbon dioxide every year, regardless of cap and trade systems implemented in the United States, Morgan said.
If individuals want to do something about global warming, they can make fewer car trips, take fewer vacations involving air travel, and turn down their heating or air conditioning, he suggested. "I believe strongly in using less, so if all that comes out of this is that we use less, I'm fine with that."
And that applies in agriculture, too, he said. "What I like about sustainable farming practices is the concept of using fewer inputs to grow similar numbers and quality of apples. It should be where the environment and the best available science meet. I don't need a government-mandated cap and trade program to help me decide to try to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions. Financially, it's in my best interest.
"Our industry has a history of seeking out innovative solutions to the problems that confront us," he added. "I feel confident that the fruit growers in Washington are going to do their part to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions with or without government intervention."
Read the full presentation of Carbon Credits and Markets: Cap and Trade Comes to Washington given by Warren Morgan at the Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting in Yakima, Washington.