Every year, the nearly 7 billion people on Planet Earth — driving their vehicles, operating coal-fired electric generating plants, running heavy industries, and carrying out dozens of other fossil fuel-burning activities — pump an estimated 234 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere.

About 204 billion metric tonnes of that eventually falls back to earth, to be absorbed into the oceans, forests, or land.

“These numbers are admittedly arguable,” says Mark Nechodom, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets, “but we end up with a deficiency of 20 billion metric tonnes to 30 billion metric tonnes per year, and that’s what all the fuss is about” in legislation aimed at dealing with climate change.

And at whatever point worldwide economic recovery ramps up, the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases belching into the atmosphere can be expected to increase, he said, via a TV link, at a climate change legislation workshop at Mississippi State University.

“What we’re talking about is tweaking how this carbon pumping system works,” he says. “We’re not talking about radical changes, but we are talking about what we can do about our present system of taking something out of the ground [petroleum] that’s been there for 200 million to 300 million years, squeezing out Btu of energy, then tossing the trash into the atmosphere. What is it we can change about that equation to affect what we anticipate are going to be significant changes in global climate because of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?”

Nechodom, who also serves as climate science policy advisor for the USDA Forest Service, has led teams of researchers focused on carbon cycling in forest ecocystems, and has been actively involved in the development of science policy and research in support of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act.

Legislation aimed at substantial reductions in greenhouse gases and the creation of a system of “offsets” using agriculture and forest lands to sequester carbon over long periods, was passed by the House in late June and sent to the Senate.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454) also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, “isn’t out of the woods yet — things could change dramatically in the Senate,” Nechodom says.

“The timeline is constantly shifting, and the president’s health care agenda is among the many things that could affect the bill’s ultimate outcome. But, despite all the political winds, we have work to do to be ready for whatever may eventually become law. USDA has been working diligently with other agencies trying to determine where the content of the legislation is likely to go.

“We’re looking at potential markets and trading mechanisms, with a focus on the measurement of public goods and services that can be provided by private landowners — primarily ag lands and forestry operations — and how they might become markets from which people can get a real paycheck for providing those public services. It’s basically land-based emissions reduction, or carbon sequestration, provided by private landowners.”

Essentially, Nechodom says, each landowner who manages his land would make decisions based on a portfolio approach.

The USDA will have a substantial role in implementing the ag and forestry offset programs, he says. “This is a very logical move, since USDA is distributed throughout the country, with several thousand offices representing its various services, and land grant universities will be considered a major part of the network.”

Any producer or forest land owner participating in the offset program will be required to have an approved plan of practices to sequester carbon and avoid or reduce greenhouse gases.

State level forestry rules and regulations for best management practices that are recommended by entities such as Mississippi State University and other land grant universities, working with state foresters, “will matter a great deal,” Nechodom says, in making sure sustainable practices are in place and that forestry and ag offsets are environmentally responsible.

“The overarching intent is fairly consistent with USDA’s mission to keep people working on the land, to keep land in forests where possible, and to encourage sustainable practices. So, we’re very much interested in working with the people writing this law so they will hear our message.”

After the financial sector meltdown last year, Nechodom says, “People are understandably concerned about sub-prime issues. There will be derivatives markets and there will be some interesting financial instruments put together for these carbon offset programs. The concerns that arose in the House were primarily about what kind of oversight these instruments will need to make sure we don’t have fraud in the markets. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has plenty of experience overseeing futures trading for agricultural commodities, and may be the agency most qualified to handle this.

“USDA is doing a lot to foster some of these markets. We’ve learned a lot over the last couple of decades about developing new commodity markets. What we’re recognizing is, that to promote and use market mechanisms we have to have guidelines and standards; we have to have confidence in the measurements the markets use; and that’s essentially what we’re looking for in carbon trading.

“What we’re trying to avoid is a walnut shell game in which we trade excess emissions credits but don’t actually achieve overall emissions reduction. The whole point of climate change regulation is emissions reduction.”

Looking at a hypothetical photo of a 100-acre rural landscape, Nechodom says, one can see potential for programs for wetlands, water quality, carbon sequestration, fish habitat, sediment reduction, conservation measures for wildlife habitat — many ways of looking at a landscape to provide multiple ecosystems services.

“If there are markets for all those services, then you’re talking about ways to look at your particular landscape and ask, ‘What am I going to produce this year, next year, the next 10 years, or the next 50 years?’ Will you, as a landowner, think of ecosystems services as just another commodity for which you can use your land to generate revenue?”

Payment for ecosystems services is largely focused on traditional mitigation, which offsets environmental impact by doing an acceptable practice, such as planting trees, someplace else, and direct payments, such as for the Conservation Reserve Program.

“What we’re looking at, and the transformation that can serve as a springboard for new markets, is bringing substantially more private capital to bear for investment in environmental improvement,” Nechodom says.

“This is a big leap forward in my opinion. Rather than resource allocations and authorizations you fight for in Congress and the appropriations you have to fight for every year, we’re talking about bringing a couple of orders of magnitude more capital into the system for conservation and for creating environmental improvements. Essentially, we’re talking about opportunities for people to do well by doing good — an opportunity to focus on real environmental benefits.”

This, he says, would involve a portfolio approach to multiple environmental benefits and markets that would allow a landowner “to look at a given landscape and decide which combination of services and commodities you want to produce, to look at markets not only as a means of adding economic value and bringing more private capital to bear, but as ways to efficiently allocate and set prices on the value of those services.”

Developing standards should involve input from “the entire stakeholder community — providers, landowners, aggregators, the investment community — to make sure we do everything we can to get it right up front.

“Stakeholders need to be at the table with the scientists. Too many people think these are just scientific exercises. Strong science is absolutely necessary, but it’s not the whole picture.

‘It’s not just about carbon. It’s not just carbon management that constitutes good stewardship or good environmental practices. There may be tradeoffs in some of these systems as we switch over from nitrogen and phosphates or other ecosystem services or nutrient reductions.

“We have some pretty good models and tools, and they’re showing us that the optimization of carbon, or the optimization of water quality may not have a beneficial effect on other systems of the landscape. A landowner should be able to look at all those tradeoffs and see where the opportunities are.”

Nechodom says that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak feels “it’s really important that USDA lead efforts to …promote and provide clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, and to help farmers participate in markets that will reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gases.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com