President Joe Biden has made no secret of his grand plans to tackle climate change. Before he even took office, he’d assembled a team of experienced climate experts to serve in his cabinet and spoke openly of a net-zero emissions future. Within hours of his swearing in, he’d formalized plans to re-enter the Paris climate accords. And within days, he’d made climate-related pronouncements covering everything from new federal oil leases (now on pause) to the government’s fleet of cars and trucks (soon to be all-electric).
Along the way, he and his team have made it abundantly clear that American farms will be fundamental to their efforts. Biden’s advisors quickly identified the US Department of Agriculture as a “lynchpin” of any climate strategy. The president predicted that the United States would be the “first in the world” to achieve net-zero emissions from its ag sector, which currently accounts for an estimated tenth of total US emissions. And former and future Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared agriculture “the first and best place to begin getting some wins” on climate.
But where, exactly, does the new administration believe those victories will come from? The available evidence points to one place in particular, a new “carbon bank” that would pay farmers, foresters and ranchers to store carbon in their soil through regenerative agriculture and other climate-friendly techniques. The plan aims to turn vast swaths of America into massive carbon sinks, helping to partially offset the nearly 7,000 megatons of greenhouse gases the US emits each year.
Success, though, is anything but guaranteed. Among the most pressing concerns: The science behind the bank remains unsettled. Its creation is already facing challenges from Congress and could potentially see more in court. And all the while, the program itself would be exceedingly complex and difficult to administer—and likely only grow more so if it lasts long enough to scale up. The list doesn’t end there, either.
For Biden, though, any potential pitfalls may pale in comparison to the possible payoff. In addition to pushing US agriculture toward zero emissions, the bank could also open the door, however narrowly, to the type of sweeping climate action that his old boss was never able to achieve, namely an economy-wide cap-and-trade system. Momentum to put a price on carbon, long a goal of environmentalists, has been missing in Washington since the last serious attempt to implement it died a slow death during former President Barack Obama’s first term.
Such a reward doesn’t come without risks, however. If the bank fails, either at the hands of partisan lawmakers in Congress or farmers in the field, it could irrevocably undercut Biden’s larger climate agenda while it’s still being implemented. The damage could last well beyond his presidency, too, dooming the prospects of any carbon-pricing scheme in the US for another decade, if not longer—time, clearly, that the world doesn’t have.
Getting Creative with the CCC
Biden has yet to officially call for the creation of a carbon bank, but his team at USDA has begun to publicly outline a plan. At its center is the Commodity Credit Corporation, a little-known financial institution created by the federal government during the Great Depression to help struggling farmers. Historically, the USDA has used the CCC as a way to prop up farm income with payments or loans to farmers when a major commodity crop such as corn or soybeans is damaged by natural disaster or disease. Like most things in Washington, though, that changed significantly under Trump. Under the former president’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, the USDA used the CCC as a vehicle to funnel billions in federal aid to American farmers who were hurt by Trump’s trade wars and later the coronavirus pandemic. CCC payments ballooned to such a degree that they accounted for an estimated 40 percent of all US farm income in 2020.
Biden’s team believes the way the agency used the CCC under Perdue cleared the way for Vilsack to get creative, too. As Robert Bonnie, a deputy chief of staff and senior climate adviser at USDA, put it during a virtual roundtable hosted by the Meridian Institute earlier this month: “Carbon is a commodity right now and the CCC was built to help think about how we stabilize that.”
Under the current plan, the USDA would use the CCC to pay farmers for every ton of carbon they are able to sequester in their soil by using cover crops, conservation tillage or other climate-friendly measures. Those payments would effectively create carbon credits, which the USDA would then sell to corporations looking to offset their own emissions. The bank would provide the agriculture sector with guaranteed per-ton prices for carbon sequestration, while also serving as an auditor to ensure that such practices are producing the desired reductions.
The plan’s appeal is easy to see for a president eager to get the ball rolling. Since the administration believes it can create the bank on its own, it won’t need to wait for permission from Congress, a legislative body historically unable or unwilling to address global warming in any meaningful way. The White House already appears to have some buy-in from powerful farm interests, a group that has been hostile to previous large-scale climate efforts. Armed with industry support and strong early returns, the thinking goes, maybe—just maybe—congressional Republicans will have no other choice than to support the bank once it is proven both successful in practice and popular with a key GOP voting bloc.
But bipartisan support for the carbon bank in the future may need to begin with scientific certainty in the present—something notably missing at the moment. The benefits of regenerative techniques such as planting cover crops or using biologically enhanced compost are well established by now. But there’s a big difference between knowing something works and knowing just how well and for how long it does so. The exact amount of carbon reduction such techniques achieve, meanwhile, will vary not just from farm to farm but from one part of a farm to another part of that same farm.
Getting an accurate measurement and putting the right price on it will be crucial. Already, environmental groups are worried that carbon-intensive industries will use purchased carbon credits to continue their polluting ways. But the reality could be even worse if it turns out the estimated sequestration doesn’t match real-world reduction—either because less carbon than expected is being captured by the soil through photosynthesis or because it doesn’t stay there for long.
An environmental research organization called the World Resources Institute detailed such scientific unknowns last year. Among the group’s concerns are the possibility that no-till farming may not be as effective at sequestering carbon as previously thought—and even if the technique does suck significant carbon out of the atmosphere, such benefits would only be temporary since the bulk of those farmers still plow their soils every few years anyway, releasing much of that stored carbon in the process. Meanwhile, if a farm changes hands, the future owner could decide to abandon any climate-friendly efforts, again putting sequestered carbon back in the atmosphere.
For critics such as Robert Paarlberg, an associate in the Sustainability Science Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, all those variables look like a giant red flag, especially when you factor in the support of an industry that worked so hard to oppose Obama’s climate efforts. “The closer you look at carbon farming,” he recently wrote in Wired, “the more it comes to resemble a sweet deal between Big Ag and corporate America to promote a painless and uncertain climate solution while tapping into public money.”
Even if the USDA can thread the needle and keep the industry happy while still holding it accountable, the department will still have plenty of other implementation challenges. New polling from Purdue University suggests less than a third of American farmers are currently aware of existing opportunities to sell carbon offsets directly to private companies—and less than a quarter of those that know are actively working toward doing so. The average American farmer is in their late 50s and nearing retirement—not exactly a demographic you’d expect to be eager to radically change how they do business.
Educating farmers about the carbon bank will take serious work from the USDA. So, too, will ensuring that Black farmers and other disadvantaged groups even have access to the program—a low bar that the USDA has sadly failed to clear throughout much of its history. Vilsack himself has faced serious criticism about his record on race during his first tour of duty at the USDA. He’s vowed to make addressing the department’s legacy of racism a priority during his second, but critics—including some congressional Democrats—will rightly want to see significant progress from the outset. Without it, the bank’s “success” wouldn’t extend to the entire farming community.
Cap, Meet Trade?
The CCC has the authority to borrow up to $30 billion at any one time, but the USDA would likely start small. A memo tied to Biden’s transition team, for instance, imagines a conservative scenario in which the department devotes $1 billion to start the bank—an investment that could buy 50-megatons worth of carbon reductions in a world where it was paying farmers $20 per ton—and then scales up from there.
The bank would become an initial middleman or marketplace of sorts, where carbon-negative farms and carbon-positive companies are trading credits. While Biden and his allies have been careful to brand their idea as “voluntary,” they’ve also suggested they’re generally open to “enforcement mechanisms” as part of their climate efforts. It’s not hard, then, to see the logical next step once voluntary trades at the bank are in full swing: a cap on emissions.
Congress, however, would need to create the cap, something nearly unthinkable at the current moment in time given Republican leaders—along with the most watched cable news channel—by and large continue to deny the reality of climate change and need for large-scale action. For now, though, the bank would be a start.
Lessons from Obama
If Biden decides to approve the bank, he can expect almost immediate pushback from a Republican Party that has already made it clear that it won’t afford the same executive flexibility to the current president that it did the last one.
Already, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, John Boozman, has voiced his opposition to using the CCC to create a carbon bank. “I feel like that’s outside of the range of their ability to do that without legislation,” the Arkansas senator told reporters earlier this month following Vilsack’s confirmation hearing. Boozman added that he’s received legal advice suggesting the bank is a non-starter. “They might have other legal advice,” he said of the USDA, “but that’s something that we’re going to have to come to terms with.” Even if Republicans can’t stop Vilsack from starting the bank, the simple threat of political and legal gridlock could create enough doubt to become self-fulfilling, with those farmers who crave financial certainty staying on the carbon sidelines.
Hill Democrats, meanwhile, have suggested they’re ready to work with the administration. But lawmakers tend to be a possessive bunch who don’t like being left out of the process even if the ones running it share their goal. At the very least, they will want to be kept informed every step of the way. At a virtual roundtable earlier this month, for instance, the Democratic staff director for the House Agriculture Committee sounded a distinct note of caution. “I think members of Congress … are going to have a lot of questions,” said Anne Simmons at the event hosted by the Meridian Institute. “It’s been 12 years since we’ve really had this debate in earnest,” she added, in reference to the Henry-Waxman cap-and-trade bill that passed in the House in 2009, but then crashed into GOP opposition in the Senate. “There are a lot of new members, a lot of new staff, a lot of education that we’re going to have to do on our end,” Simmons said.
Biden, of course, is familiar with congressional and partisan gridlock more than most. As vice president, he had a front-row seat as the GOP did everything it could to undercut Obama’s climate agenda, first by blocking congressional action on cap-and-trade and then by fighting executive regulatory action on climate change. Importantly, however, Biden also watched as Obama was able to scratch out a few smaller wins along the way.
Of particular note were new fuel economy rules for automakers, which turned out to be one of the most significant climate actions taken by Obama during his eight years in office. You don’t need to squint to see the similarities between the auto rules, which attempted to rescue carmakers from their own worst impulses, and Biden’s ag plan, which could do the same for American farmers. Like the carbon bank, Obama’s auto rules relied on executive authority, were based on imperfect and incomplete science, faced challenges in Congress and the courts and ultimately secured buy-in from an industry under duress.
This late in the climate game, however, Biden will have to aim far higher than his old boss. To get there, though, he’s going to need to find some new and unlikely allies. Betting the farm, then, might be incredibly risky—but it also may just be his best chance.