Among its aims, the recent UN-sponsored Cancun Climate Change Conference wanted to better coordinate carbon mitigation efforts around the globe. While the meeting fell short of broad deals, during a Dec. 9 press call U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played up several new efforts undertaken by the USDA.

“We thought it was necessary for those in attendance to review the work (U.S.) farmers, ranchers and foresters are doing today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in terms of conservation activities and techniques,” said Vilsack in describing a speech he’d given at the conference. Among things he told attendees: “how we’re leveraging private sector demands for mitigation services; the work that USDA is engaging in and the effectiveness of markets for carbon and building the capacity within USDA to understand those markets and improve accounting …for (those) wanting to get into this area.”

The new USDA efforts will be “focused primarily on the capacity to demonstrate the specific impact of certain mitigation practices. And to figure out how best to assess and verify those benefits and to encourage folks to participate in programs that will allow us to do this. That would (give us) a better handle on how markets could be set up for climate change purposes.”

For more, see Climate change will affect crop production

Towards that end, USDA will provide conservation/innovation grants through the NRCS of up to $15 million.

“Those will fund demonstration tests around the country for mitigation practices that will allow the USDA – working with independent aggregators retained by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – to figure out the best ways to assess benefits from these demonstrations tests in terms of carbon sequestration and storage and how to verify those benefits have been obtained.”

The USDA will also push the “’Voluntary Carbon Data Project’ to encourage those in CRP to look at planting trees on sensitive croplands and non-productive croplands. That, in turn, would let us use those areas as demonstration projects, as well.”

Vilsack also spoke on ‘Carbon Net’, a program in the process of being set up.

“We found that with hay there was difficulty for those who are raising it matching up with those who” want to buy or price the commodity. “We established ‘Hay Net’ to make that connection. We’re doing the same with Carbon Net.”

Carbon Net will not be used to establish credits. Instead, “we’re creating demonstration projects that will allow us to better measure – more accurately measure – the benefits accrued by certain practices.

“The reason that’s important is … if you’re able to measure and verify a certain practice results in a benefit that’s quantifiable, farmers will be encouraged to use that practice and then potentially qualify for, or connect with, the economic opportunities … market present.”

A new climate change science plan is also under USDA’s umbrella. The plan “lays out specifically how we’re going to better understand the effects of climate change on natural and managed ecosystems, how we’ll focus efforts as part of our overall responsibilities on adaptation strategies, what we can learn from adaptation tools and what we can learn from mitigation strategies, as well. This is a commitment to science-based decision-making and we hope to be able to use the information gained … to do a better job of creating assessment tools to allow us to develop data to be able to analyze and model more effectively and be able to communicate the results of that analysis more effectively for farmers.

“All of this is designed, in part, to put us in a position to assist farmers and ranchers to take maximum economic benefit from these voluntary markets or state-run markets as they evolve.”

Asked about researchers who continue to say global warming claims are highly questionable, Vilsack stiffened his neck.

“All I can say is the vast majority of scientists and researchers believe there has been significant climate change that has occurred. There have been some indications that this decade has been one of the warmest – if not the warmest – in many, many, many, many centuries.”

He named the pine bark beetle as a beneficiary of climate change.

“The pine bark beetle infestation is killing millions and millions of trees in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. In part, that’s a result of winters not being as severe as they have been in the past. The beetles survive the winter in greater numbers and the result is we’re faced with a serious issue.

“I think there is a substantial amount of science that suggests we need to take climate change seriously. We’re doing that at USDA. We’re also taking the opportunity to determine how we might be able to not only do what’s right for environment but also to determine if there are economic benefits to be gained for farmers, ranchers and landowners. If there are, we want to utilize that economic opportunity.”