6 States Tapping Into the Benefits of Carbon Farming
By Diana Donlon
A handful of states around the country have begun to recognize the importance of carbon farming as an expedient tool to fight climate change. What's carbon farming? Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, describes it as "a suite of crops and agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil and in perennial vegetation like trees." If carbon farming were widely implemented, it could return billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere—where there's currently too much, to the soil where there's too little. Carbon in the soil, i.e. soil carbon, becomes a resource that increases food, water and climate security.
Last month, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to pass legislation officially supporting the Paris climate agreement, just days after President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the global agreement. One of the two landmark laws signed in Hawai'i was an act creating the Carbon Farming Task Force. Written and championed by Hawai'i Center for Food Safety, along with the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and Surfrider Foundation O'ahu Chapter, the task force went into effect July 1 and will develop incentives for Hawai'i's farmers and ranchers to improve the resilience of their lands by increasing the soil's carbon content.
University of Hawai'i assistant professor of agricultural ecosystem ecology, Rebecca Ryals, believes "Hawai'i's Carbon Farming Task Force is a critically important first step toward finding local solutions to global climate change, and soil carbon farming strategies should be emphasized in its incentive programs."
Hawai'i is just one of a growing number of states preparing to protect rural livelihoods from the threats posed by climate change by tapping into the multiple benefits of carbon farming. Here are five others:
1. In May, Maryland established the Maryland Healthy Soils Program introduced by Delegate Dana Stein. Stein's legislation (HB 1063) passed unanimously in the Senate and had the support of both the Maryland Farm Bureau and the soil and climate communities (including thousands of Center for Food Safety members who responded to our action alert in support of the bill). The act, as approved by Gov. Larry Hogan, requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives including research, education and technical assistance contributing to healthy soils.
2. Massachusetts is right behind Maryland. "An Act to Promote Healthy Soils" (No.3713) presented by Paul A. Schmid III, would establish a fund for education and training for those engaged in agriculture that regenerates soil health. Indicators of healthy soil include levels of carbon, rates of water infiltration and biological activity.
3. Meanwhile, in New York, Assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced A3281, a first-of-its-kind bill to use a tax credit model for farmers who maximize carbon sequestration potential on their land. Although the bill did not pass this past year, Barrett was able to incorporate the Carbon Farming Act into the state budget which is providing $50,000 to study incentives for carbon farming tax credits, grants and other programs.
4. In California the Department of Food and Agriculture has appropriated $7.5 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to develop and administer incentive and demonstration programs as part of the state's Healthy Soils Program, actively supported by the California Climate and Agriculture Network, a coalition that includes Center for Food Safety. The objective of the demonstration projects is to monitor and demonstrate to California farmers and ranchers that "specific management practices sequester carbon, improve soil health and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases." The program includes a variety of practices such as mulching, cover crops, compost application, hedgerow planting and buffer strips.
5. Finally, in Vermont, after making a successful transition from conventional to regenerative agriculture on their farm, Jesse and Cally McDougall initiated legislation in 2016 to help other farmers transition. Reintroduced in 2017 as S.43 by Vermont State Sen. Brian Campion, the bill:
Proposes to require the Secretary of Natural Resources to establish a regenerative soils program whose purposes include increasing the carbon sequestration capability of Vermont soils, reducing the amount of sediment and waste entering the waters of the state, and promoting cost-effective and healthy soil management practices.
While the Vermont bill did not pass this year, Jesse McDougall reports that "it wasn't killed either" and will be taken up again next session. According to this self-described carbon farmer, "There is much interest and energy for it here in Vermont. I think this bill (or a new regenerative bill) has a strong chance next year."
We expect that McDougall is right. While each state will incentivize soil health differently depending on geography, needs and capacity, there's a strong chance that many more states will get proactive about regenerating the health of their soil and harnessing the potential of carbon farming. With this kind of interest, and momentum generated by public gatherings like the upcoming Soil not Oil conference in September, it won't be long before policies to incentivize carbon farming spread across the nation.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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