Pulling Out Of The Paris Agreement Would Hit U.S. Farmers And Forest Owners The Hardest

Whose jobs are we saving by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement?
06/01/2017 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017
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If U.S. President Donald Trump pulls the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, as expected, some of the biggest victims will be American farmers and private forest owners, who stand to lose billions in lost productivity and carbon payments.

Why? Because plants inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, storing the carbon in their trunks and roots. The forests, farms, and fields of the United States absorb about 850 million more tons of carbon dioxide than they release each year, which means they mop up about 16 percent of the greenhouse gasses that industry emits.

Properly managed, those land systems can be absorbing 50 percent of industrial emissions by 2050, but if they’re poorly managed, they can become net emitters themselves, with dead and dying forests leaking carbon dioxide and methane in the United States the way they do in Brazil, Indonesia, and other developing countries, even as farm yields plunge anywhere from 30 to 80 percent in the face of higher temperatures.

Sustainable land management can stave off the worst effects, and the Paris Agreement even makes it possible for farmers and forest owners who properly manage their land to earn money by generating carbon offsets, as many U.S. farmers and forest owners are already doing through California’s cap-and-trade program. That single, fledgling initiative funneled $63.2 million to owners of farms and private forests across the country in 2015, according to Ecosystem Marketplace’s most recent State of Forest Finance Report.

[T]hose land systems can be absorbing 50 percent of industrial emissions by 2050, but if they’re poorly managed, they can become net emitters themselves...

Ironically, the carbon dioxide that’s driving climate change is also contributing to forest growth – because trees are essentially gorging themselves on CO2 – but that growth is tenuous, in part because forests are getting older, but also because higher temperatures both tire trees out, increase the risk of spreading wildfire, and perk up nasties like the mountain pine beetle, which is enjoying a “beetle baby boom” and devouring trees across North America.

Forest owners can save their forests and earn money by sustainably harvesting timber, while farmers can lock carbon in soil by ramping up “climate safe agriculture” and agroforestry, which involves strategically planting trees on farms in ways that enhance production – by, say, adding fruit to the product mix or “fixing” nitrogen into the soil. This can be expanded to cover more than 50 million acres of farmland while increasing production.

U.S. landowners might also earn money from countries like Norway, New Zealand, and Canada, which could conservatively funnel between $1.8 and $2 billion into U.S. farms over the next decade based on current national commitments, according to one rough estimate. That number could increase if negotiations to cap airline emissions progress favorably, as well as negotiations around international offsets under the Paris Agreement. While the exact figures are impossible to calculate, they’ll amount to zero if Trump pulls the U.S. out of the global pact.

All of this, by the way, is on top of the $25 billion per year that the “restoration economy” is already funneling into rural communities – directly employing 126,000 people and supporting 95,000 other jobs, mostly in small businesses that manage forests, restore rivers and streams, and maintain habitat, according to a 2015 survey that environmental economist Todd BenDor conducted through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And these numbers, in turn, are on top of the booming renewables sector, which has generated 500,000 jobs in the last decade.

So, the next time someone tells you we’re saving jobs by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ask yourself: whose jobs?

More On The Podcast

We also covered this issue in Episode 12 of the Bionic Planet podcast, which you can access via Bionic-Planet.comiTunesTuneIn, or wherever you access podcasts – or click below to listen directly on this device:

Further Reading

This story draws on the following, which provide a deeper treatment of these issues: