Dani Gelardi, Washington State Department of Agriculture
A new mandate
On January 1st, 2023, major portions of the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) will launch in Washington State. This ambitious law is part of Washington’s plan to eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. The Washington State Department of Ecology estimates that agriculture accounts for 6.7% of the total emissions in Washington. Despite this sizable GHG contribution, agriculture is exempt from CCA mandates, due to existing laws that already regulate this sector. While it remains uncertain how regulations facing the food manufacturing sector may eventually impact agricultural producers, the CCA will not cap emissions from the production of unprocessed livestock and crops. Does this mean these activities will be entirely unaffected?
There is broad consensus in the scientific community that climate change has made livestock and crop production—already challenging and volatile industries—more challenging. Warming temperatures, rising carbon dioxide levels, and declining water availability have impacted global agricultural production, including in Washington state. The long-term CCA objectives to reduce GHG emissions, stabilize the climate, and protect natural resources, will undoubtedly support Washington producers. However, the CCA will have more immediate impacts on Washington agriculture as well.
While the specifics of CCA deployment are still under development, it is known that the compliance obligations will largely leave agricultural production untouched. However, the CCA includes opportunities for businesses to “offset” GHG emissions in one sector or geography with a concurrent decrease in emissions elsewhere. Following California’s lead, Ecology is proposing the adoption of four offset protocols in the early stages of the CCA: Livestock Projects, U.S Forest Projects, Urban Forest Projects, and Ozone Depleting Substances Projects. Washington producers may be eligible to generate additional revenue on their farms by implementing projects covered under these protocols.
The most straightforward impacts to Washington agriculture will be through the Livestock Projects Protocol. While there is no requirement to participate, dairy cattle and swine operations can develop carbon offset projects by installing biogas control systems—commonly called digesters—in the manure management process. Producers can be paid for destroying, using, or selling the methane captured by digesters. This practice may also be eligible for funding through the upcoming Clean Fuel Standards law. While Ecology intends to make offset programs available to producers of all sizes, participation requirements can be prohibitively resource-intensive for small operations. Centralized digesters that integrate manure from more than one operation are eligible for funding, though smaller or more complex projects may find voluntary carbon offset programs more flexible than those offered by the CCA. In voluntary carbon markets, offset project developers can work directly with companies or individuals rather than through the state program.
Through the US Forestry and Urban Forestry Protocols, improved forest management, reforestation, avoided forest conversion (including conversion to agriculture), and urban tree planting will be eligible offset projects. Orchard activities, the planting of riparian buffers, and hedgerow installation are technically eligible projects. However, under the proposed forest protocols, offsets are best suited for large tracts of land that can be placed in a long-term management plan or conservation easement. As with digesters, voluntary carbon markets may be more flexible and lucrative in complex cases, such as those in which landowners, land trusts, or conservation districts pool their hedgerow or orchard acreage.
Other offset protocols commonly available in voluntary markets will not be included when the CCA launches in 2023. The purchasing and deployment of fuel-efficient farm equipment and production of on-farm renewable energy will not be among the initial protocols. Offsets in the form of increased soil carbon will also not be available. Voluntary carbon markets frequently offer protocols for projects that involve reduced tillage or cover cropping. As with other offset projects, more research is needed to prove that soil carbon sequestration meets CCA requirements that offsets be “real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable, and enforceable.” Ecology intends to review, revise, and adopt more protocols over time.
While many agricultural activities will not be impacted by the mandates or the offsets, one major connection remains between the CCA and Washington agriculture. The CCA establishes a “cap-and-invest” program, in which businesses are required to purchase their emission allowances through quarterly auctions. Under the law, proceeds from these auctions must be invested in projects that increase climate resilience in ecosystems and communities. While the legislature has not yet determined how much of these proceeds will be distributed to whom, the CCA establishes multiple accounts in the state treasury. These accounts are dedicated to funding projects that improve emissions from the transportation sector, address air quality and health disparities, and support several activities related to agriculture.
In the Climate Commitment Account, eligible projects include those that achieve energy efficiency or emissions reductions in the agricultural sector, such as: fertilizer management; soil management; bioenergy; biofuels; grants, rebates, and other financial incentives for agricultural harvesting equipment, heavy-duty trucks, agricultural pump engines, tractors, and other equipment used in agricultural operations; grants, loans, or any financial incentives to food processors to implement projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; renewable energy projects; farmworker housing weatherization programs; dairy digester research and development; alternative manure management, and; activities eligible for grants under the Washington State Conservation Commission Sustainable Farms and Fields Program. The Natural Climate Solutions Account also covers agricultural projects, such as those that sequester carbon through soil management or vegetative planting, or improve the health of nearby watersheds.
Though the CCA is still under development, and much is unknown about how it will evolve over time, Washington agriculture remains a crucial stakeholder in this conversation. Stay tuned for more updates about what Washington producers can expect from CCA mandates, offsets, and cap-and-invest.
The Climate Commitment Act Impact on Washington Ag infographic is available here: WA CCA Infographic
Dani Gelardi, PhD, is the Senior Soil Scientist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, where she leads the Washington Soil Initiative with WSU and Washington State Conservation Commission partners.
This article is also posted on the WSU CSANR Perspectives in Sustainability blog.