Harvesting Climate Benefits from Agriculture and Forestry Practices (808Y)

BACKGROUND. As part of its climate agenda, the Biden Administration is promoting “climate-smart” agricultural and forestry practices that can advance climate goals by sequestering carbon and/or reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. See Executive Order 14008, Section 216(b). Significant funding is being allocated to this effort. The recently-enacted Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocates $20 billion to existing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs that are presumed to generate climate benefits. Significantly, however, the IRA conditions the funding upon a Secretarial “determination” that the funds will “directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions.” Separately, the USDA is moving forward with a $3.5 billion “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities” program, which will test the proposition that when ag and forestry production practices generate discernable carbon benefits–as certified through an as-yet undefined process–farmers and foresters will be able to command higher market prices.

PROBLEM SET. There are no well-defined protocols for how to measure, monitor, report and verify (collectively referred to as “MMRV”) climate benefits associated with specific ag and forestry practices. Current survey techniques utilized by the USDA are imprecise, typically involve limited or no field testing and do not take advantage of newly available technologies. Developing solid MMRV muscle could generate multiple benefits, including: (1) providing a stronger rationale for paying farmers and foresters to deploy climate-smart practices; (2) enabling farmers and foresters to collect a market premium for commodities produced using climate-smart practices; and (3) setting sideboards that would improve the credibility of voluntary ag and forestry carbon markets. In addition to fundamental MMRV questions, no guidance has been developed, as yet, regarding closely-related requirements, including: (1) the criteria upon which a Secretarial “determination” of climate benefits will be made under IRA-funded programs; or (2) a market-recognized “climate-smart” certification that will be bestowed on commodities that have been produced using practices that generate climate benefits.

PRACTICUM FOCUS. The practicum will develop evidence-based recommendations to the White House and the Department of Agriculture regarding how to effectively address climate aspects of its climate-smart ag and forestry IRA funding, and how to deploy its new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program to advance climate-related MMRV and commodity market opportunities for the ag and forestry sectors. Primary attention will be given to the identification of MMRV protocols in a rapidly-evolving technical context and how related policy determinations and certifications should be developed and potentially applied.

AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES WILL BE THE PRIMARY FOCUS FOR THE WINTER QUARTER PRACTICUM, AND FORESTRY PRACTICES WILL BE THE PRIMARY FOCUS FOR A COMPANION SPRING QUARTER PRACTICUM. (A separate sign-up will be available for the spring quarter practicum.) The practicum will be open to students through both the Law School and the Doerr Sustainability School. Research and policy development tasks undertaken in the practicum will include:

  1. 1. Identifying and critiquing current USDA MMRV protocols for climate-smart ag and forestry practices.
  2. 2. Gathering MMRV-related information pertinent to agricultural and forestry practices from additional sources including: Private party proposals that the USDA has selected for funding under the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. Voluntary carbon credit markets, where payments are based on agricultural and forestry practices; Relevant RD&D efforts underway in industry, academic institutions, and technology incubators.
  3. 3. Identifying and convening individuals that have expertise in carbon sequestration in soils and biomass and GHG emissions from agricultural practices and recommending mechanisms through which the USDA could tap their expertise on an on-going basis.
  4. 4. Developing criteria that the Secretary of Agriculture potentially could apply when making IRA-required “determinations” regarding climate benefits related to IRA-funded conservation programs.
  5. 5. Evaluating a range of climate-smart commodities certification approaches that might be utilized, taking into account approaches that have been taken in other ag and forestry contexts (e.g., “organic: foods; forest stewardship certifications).

Elements used in grading: Attendance, Performance, Class Participation, Written Assignments.

CONSENT APPLICATION: To access the consent application for this course, go to the SLS Registrar https://registrar.law.stanford.edu/ and then click SUNetID Login in the top right corner of the page. See application for deadline and instructions.

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