Forests and Farming Get Little Attention in U.S. Climate Action Plan

Climate negotiators have detailed plans from Mexico for carbon pollution cuts from land use, while the U.S. makes few promises, says a new report.

Soil erosion in El Jazmín, Jalisco, Mexico. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

It's six months until world leaders are supposed to approve a new international climate treaty. But some climate action advocates are already worried that U.S. intentions for cutting its climate-altering greenhouse gas pollution are too weak and vague.

America’s plans come up short in ambition and details when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas emissions generated by land use, according to a brief report released on Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Emissions related to agriculture, forestry, and other land uses add up to 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas pollution, the group noted, so action in this arena is vital.

The U.S. and EU have “mentioned that they will tackle land use but are being a little bit coy and a little bit nebulous in their language, saying, ‘We intend to take land use into account, but we don’t have the methodology or the structure to take that on right away,’ ” said Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, a policy analyst with UCS and coauthor of the report.

The report lauded Mexico for its commitment to cut its global warming pollution by 25 percent unconditionally and to cut it by 40 percent if it receives international funds for clean economic development. It highlighted Mexico’s “detailed plans to reduce its [land-use-based] emissions,” which include ending active deforestation by 2030; reforesting river areas and wetlands; conserving and restoring ecosystems and strengthening protection for endangered species; and more.

"Mexico is setting an example for the rest of the world by submitting [a greenhouse gas reduction plan] that is timely, clear, ambitious, and supported by robust, unconditional policy commitments," according to a White House statement in late March, when Mexico submitted its plan to the U.N.

EU and U.S. plans contrast with Mexico's with their “focus on the accounting” for carbon reductions while offering no plans for how they will handle these cuts in their agriculture, forestry, or ecosystem conservation efforts, said Ferretti-Gallon.

“One of our bigger issues with both the EU and the U.S. is that they’re not as transparent or detailed as we’d like them to be,” said Ferretti-Gallon, even though that is the purpose of the greenhouse gas reduction plans.

“Countries can only be held accountable if their plans are detailed on what actions and sectors they will focus on,” she said.

Ferretti-Gallon is also concerned that the U.S. and Canada have stated that they don’t intend to account for heat-trapping pollution from so-called natural phenomena, such as the droughts along the west coast of North America, even when they involve indirect impacts of global warming.

Related: Canada's High Arctic Is No Longer a Safe Haven for Polar Bears

“In Canada a particular a kind of beetle is ravaging west coast forests, leaving them like kindling for forest fires, which are a pretty big source of greenhouse gas pollution,” said Ferretti-Gallon. “We’re concerned that countries like the U.S. and Canada won’t look to those areas as places where they should prioritize mitigation strategies.”

To cut land-use-based emissions, the U.S. could focus on reducing use of nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture, she said. This would reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that's 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The U.S. could also use abandoned cropland as a resource by restoring former forests or planting new forests. "Additional forestland would increase carbon uptake, which takes the carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it,” said Ferretti-Gallon.

Ferretti-Gallon said that hopefully, through the climate negotiation sessions such as this week’s talks in Bonn, Germany, “a feedback loop among countries seeking to strengthen their greenhouse gas reduction plans" will encourage the U.S. to fill in the details of its own action plan.

So, Why Should You Care? The United States is the world's second-greatest greenhouse gas polluter and historically responsible for the majority of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. So its plan for curbing national emissions will be a major factor at the December conference in Paris to finalize a new climate change treaty.