New plan from Global Warming Commission relies on farms, forests to absorb emissions

Money remains biggest obstacle to turning state’s natural and working lands into better carbon sinks.

By: - October 5, 2021 5:20 am
Farmland in Oregon

An amendment to House Bill 3414 would make it easier for local governments to extend urban growth boundaries, something environmentalists fiercely oppose. (Getty Images)

Oregon farmers could be recruited to play a crucial role in the state’s climate change efforts under a new plan from the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

The Commission, created by the Oregon Legislature in 2007, lays out more than 30 strategies for upping the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by Oregon lands and waters and turning more of them into highly efficient carbon sinks. 

For farmers, the commission proposes incentives and workshops to plant cover crops in the off season that build soil capable of absorbing more carbon dioxide, and supporting a new algae production industry to create jobs and harvest an aquatic plant that sucks up carbon dioxide while it grows.

Another strategy is simply better conservation, especially along the state’s coastal kelp and eelgrass groves, and in marshes, wetlands and forested swamps. The overall Working and Natural Lands proposal aims to increase carbon sequestration across the state by 25% by 2025 and by 50% by 2050.

Without adopting the proposed strategies and expanding stewardship and management of state natural lands and waters, Oregon could miss targets set by Gov. Kate Brown to reduce overall emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2035. More than half of all carbon dioxide emissions in earth’s atmosphere today have been released since 1990, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Carbon dioxide, released largely by the burning of fuels and by deforestation, absorbs and radiates heat back into the atmosphere. It is the greenhouse gas most responsible for rising temperatures on earth, according to scientists. 

But adopting the new carbon sequestration plan in Oregon will require getting enough funding, and it hasn’t been easy in the past. 

The report calls out the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program as part of the solution to increasing carbon sequestration, but notes that the four-year-old initiative has yet to see major state funding. The program helps farmers arrange easements on their lands so they can continue using the land but agree not to develop it for other purposes. It often requires payment or tax incentives to get farmers to agree to easements, and the U.S. government matches state money dedicated to this.

Jan Lee, executive director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, said the Global Warming Commission has discussed needing at least $10 to $15 million to get started. That money would be used to hire staff to oversee conservation projects, to match federal easement money, to collect data and pay incentives for farmers and foresters. 

The commission expects some federal money as part of the infrastructure bill now before Congress. More than 50% of land in Oregon is owned and managed by the federal government. 

Other sources of funding could be from corporations or foundations. Lee explained how The Nature Conservancy, where Oregon Global Warming Commission Chair Catherine McDonald works, teamed up with Land O’ Lakes dairy products company in Minnesota to fund workshops for farmers on improving soil health and carbon sequestration. 

A big boon to the program would have been funds from cap and trade legislation that so far has failed at the Oregon Legislature. In 2020, 11 Republican senators opposed the plan by boycotting the legislative session. The bill would have set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions for the natural gas, electricity and energy products industries in the state, and would have required companies to buy permits to pay for their share of pollution.

The money from those permits would have paid for at least 40% of the plans laid out in the 2021 Working Lands proposal, according to state Sen. Micheal Dembrow, D-Portland. Dembrow is a member of the Global Warming Commission and Senate Energy and Environment Committee. He said he’s hopeful that executive action down the line could get cap and trade back in play, and that Oregon could become the third state in the nation to adopt it.

“Our hope has always been to do this legislatively,” he said, “but it could be done through executive order. That’s always been plan B.”

Cap and trade is how California helps pay for land and water conservation and carbon sequestration projects. 

Dembrow will play a big part in trying to find funding for the strategies outlined in the proposal, and could start to push in February. He said first the plan needs to be presented to the Senate Energy and Environment Committee in November. The implementation of some of the strategies that fall on state agencies to execute could happen through direct action from the governor, but any major legislative action won’t happen until 2023. 

Across the country, carbon stored in natural and working lands reduced overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 12% in 2019, and researchers estimate that this could be more than doubled with efforts like those outlined in Oregon’s proposal. Despite the need for greater carbon sequestration strategies nationwide, this new proposal makes Oregon one of only nine states with climate action plans that include the specific goal of capturing and storing more carbon dioxide in lands and waters. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.