On April 20, 2021, the Senate unveiled the text of the proposed Growing Climate Solutions Act. The bill, which has been co-sponsored by 20 Democrats and 22 Republicans, is aimed at encouraging the development of voluntary carbon markets. Specifically, the bill would help provide technical assistance for farmers and private forest landowners to get involved in voluntary carbon markets. This is the second version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, with the first proposed in the previous Congressional session.
The original Growing Climate Solutions Act was first introduced to Congress on June 4, 2020. Like its 2021 counterpart, the goal of the 2020 bill was to make it easier for farmers and foresters to gain entry the voluntary carbon marketplace.
Voluntary carbon markets are an emerging phenomenon meant to address the reduction of greenhouse gases (“GHG”) in the atmosphere. In general, these markets encompass transactions of carbon offsets, the act of reducing or sequestering a certain amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Offsetting a certain amount of carbon generates a credit which can then be bought or sold on within the voluntary market. Because these carbon markets are voluntary, it is up to the organizations facilitating the markets to set their own standards for market participation, credit registries, and types of projects that will be regarded as reducing carbon or other GHGs.
Because voluntary carbon markets operate in the private sector, they are viewed as being more flexible than required “compliance” carbon markets. Compliance markets, such as the cap-and-trade program adopted by the state of California in 2013, are typically instituted by governments and may target a specific industry or type of GHG emitter. In a compliance market, the government will likely determine the maximum amount of GHG that a source may emit, how credits will be generated, and who may participate in the market. Participation and demand in compliance markets are determined according to regulatory requirements. In a voluntary market, demand is determined according to the participants, and who may participate is less formally regulated. Additionally, because voluntary markets can differ from one another, a potential participant has the option of exploring different markets to determine which would work best for the participant’s needs.
While the flexibility of voluntary carbon markets allows room for experimentation and innovation, it can also create certain obstacles. Access to reliable information about markets, access to qualified assistance to new participants, and lack of standardized quality criteria have become obstacles to getting farmers and private forest landowners involved in carbon markets. The Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2020 was introduced as a potential solution to those issues. Although the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held hearings on the 2020 bill, it failed to receive the support needed to become law. This prompted the sponsors of the Growing Climate Solutions Act to resume negotiations with other Senators in order to draft a new version of the bill. That version was reintroduced to the Senate this week.
Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021
According to the text of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, its purposes are to facilitate both “the participation of farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners” in voluntary carbon markets, and the “provision of technical assistance […] in overcoming barrier to entry,” as well as to establish the Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program (“the Program”) and an Advisory Council to advise USDA regarding the Program. In other words, the purpose of the bill is to create a certification program under USDA to provide technical assistance to agricultural producers seeking to participate in voluntary carbon markets.
Under the Growing Climate Solutions Act, USDA would have 270 days after the Act becomes law to determine whether establishing the Program would further the goal helping to get farmers and private forest landowners involved in voluntary carbon markets. If USDA determines that establishing the Program would help advance that goal then the Department may proceed. If it finds that establishing the Program would not help advance that goal, then USDA must issue a report detailing its findings.
Once the Program is established, the Growing Climate Solutions Act directs that USDA must create “recognized protocols” for voluntary carbon markets that would ensure “consistency, reliability, effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency” with regards to a variety of procedures including sampling methodologies, account systems, and systems for verification. Additionally, USDA would be required to develop qualifications for “covered entities” under the Program. Those covered entities include both providers of technical assistance to agricultural producers looking to participate in carbon markets, as well as third-party verifiers conducting the verification processes for voluntary carbon markets. In developing both the protocols and qualifications, USDA would be required to give at least 60 days for public notice and comment.
USDA would then be required to maintain a website through which covered entities may receive Program certification. The website would also maintain a list of covered entities so that agricultural producers can easily access information on certified technical assistance providers and third-party verifiers.
Along with the Program, USDA would be required to establish the Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program Advisory Council (“Advisory Council”). The purpose of the Council would be to review and recommend any appropriate changes to the Program’s protocols and qualifications, and to advise USDA on a number of topics, including current carbon market practices, and ways to reduce barriers to entry. At least 51% of members on the Advisory Council must be representatives from the agricultural industry. Four members will be from the forestry industry, and other members will include professionals familiar with carbon markets, and environmental and agricultural issues.
In addition to information generated by the Advisory Council, USDA would also be required to partner with the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) to conduct an assessment regarding a variety of topics related to carbon markets. That assessment would include information on: the number of entities involved in voluntary carbon markets; overall demand for agriculture or forestry credits; the total number of agriculture or forestry credits that have been generated; barriers to entry; methods for reducing barriers to entry; the current state of monitoring and measuring technologies needed to quantify long-term carbon sequestration; and ways in which USDA can encourage voluntary carbon markets. After creating the initial assessment, USDA and EPA would be required to draft a new one every four years.
Comparing the latest version of the Growing Climate Solutions Act to the version that was introduced in 2020, the main differences involve the Advisory Council, and a new section in the bill titled “Fair Treatment of Farmers.” Under the 2020 bill, the Advisory Council would have had 25 members, only 10 of whom would have been representatives from agriculture. Under the 2021 bill, more than half of committee members are required to be members of the agricultural industry. Additionally, the Fair Treatment of Farmers provision will require USDA to ensure that covered entities act in good faith by providing farmers with realistic cost and revenue estimates. The provision will also require USDA-certified technical assistance providers to help farmers receive a fair distribution of the revenue generated from the sale of carbon credits.
Currently, the Growing Climate Solutions Act has received broad bipartisan support in Congress, as well as support from various private organizations including the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund. However, the bill still has a way to go before it becomes law. On April 22, 2021, the Senate is expected to hold a “markup” for the bill, a process that gives senators an opportunity to amend and rewrite proposed legislation. The bill then must pass both the Senate, and the House before it can advance to the President for signing. While it is currently unclear whether the Growing Climate Solutions Act will be enacted, the wide base of support for the bill is encouraging for its supporters. On April 22, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously advanced the bill, and further co-sponsors have signed on. As of April 22, the Growing Climate Solutions Act is co-sponsored by 20 Democrats and 22 Republicans. Senators on the Agriculture Committee are hopeful that the bill could be given time on the Senate floor before the August recess.
To read the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2021, click here.
To read the Growing Climate Solutions Act of 2020, click here.