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California Climate and Agriculture Legislative Roundup

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The 2015 legislative year in California started off with a bang, climate policy-wise.

Speaking before the assembled members of the Legislature at his January inaugural address, Governor Jerry Brown outlined several bold objectives for the year 2030, including goals to produce 50 percent of our electricity from renewable sources, reduce petroleum use by 50 percent, and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

Perhaps most radical was the Governor’s declaration that “we must manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.” By this he meant agricultural practices—including many in the organic toolkit—that can draw down and hold atmospheric carbon in soils, perennial crops and conservation plantings.

Furthermore, in his budget proposal, Governor Brown included a new program called the Healthy Soils Initiative that “ensures that our agricultural soils have adequate soil organic matter (SOM). Increasing the amount of SOM from its current levels in soils can provide multiple benefits.” Existing and transitioning organic producers should be among those to benefit from this initiative since soil organic matter is a cornerstone of good organic practices.

Senate Bill 367: The Agriculture Climate Benefits Act

This bill, authored by Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), creates a program at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to incentivize growers to use practices that reduce agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or store carbon. It identifies four categories of practices eligible for funding: soil building, water conservation, increased biodiversity and renewable energy. It also expands an existing CDFA advisory committee to include climate science expertise, representatives familiar with technical assistance, and, importantly, one organic producer.

Cover crops at Pinnacle Organic increase soil organic matter.

Cover crops at Pinnacle Organic increase soil organic matter.

Funding for the vision laid out in SB 367 would have come from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), derived from cap-and-trade funds being collected annually from the largest GHG emitters. The GGRF is growing steadily and was budgeted at $1.7 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

SB 367 picked up significant support from the get-go, including dozens of sustainable agriculture organizations as well as the California Farm Bureau and some environmental groups. It had almost unanimous bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly. Another bill, AB 761 (Levine), complements SB 367 by creating a carbon farming program and highlighting the importance of agricultural climate solutions.

Delayed but not Defeated

In the last two weeks of the legislative session, it became clear that many political forces were at play in the allocation of cap-and-trade funds, and in the fate of bills that set ambitious GHG reductions targets for the next 20 to 30 years. In the end, the Legislature and Governor could not come to agreement on how to divide up the GGRF pie, and they left almost $1 billion on the table. All bills proposing GGRF allocations, including SB 367, were put on hold.

Protecting Farmland and the Climate

In 2015, the Department of Conservation launched a new cap-and-trade funded program called the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALC). SALC funds agricultural conservation easements and local government land use planning to improve farmland conservation. It is the country’s first-ever program that invests in farmland protection as a strategy for minimizing development and limiting increases in GHG emissions related to transportation and higher energy use. It serves as a groundbreaking model for the nation and the world, sending a signal that land use strategies have a critical role to play in addressing the climate crisis.

This year, SALC received a budget of  $5 million. SB 367 proposed an increase to $40 million, and though the bill has not passed, it did have an effect. As of this writing, there is a staff proposal to increase the 2016 budget to $40 million; a decision will be made in December 2015.

Water-Energy Efficiency

In 2014, in response to the drought crisis, Governor Brown announced the launch of the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), funded initially with $10 million of cap-and-trade money. This program, administered by CDFA, provides grants directly to growers who seek to implement irrigation projects that simultaneously reduce water and energy consumption and related GHG emissions. While SWEEP has been funded through emergency drought allocations over the past two years, its $40 million budget for the coming year indicates a significant vote of confidence in the program and its potential to make a real impact.

Two other bills were introduced with a focus on increasing water-energy efficiency. SB 471 (Pavley) would create an additional program to facilitate water-energy efficiencies (including in the agricultural sector), while SB 551 (Wolk) would make it a priority for water-related projects in the state to be as energy-efficient as feasible. Neither bill advanced  far in the process, but could be revived next year.

Hedgerows at Preston Vineyard store carbon and provide habitat.

Hedgerows at Preston Vineyard store carbon and provide habitat.

Adaptation to Climate Change Impacts

In addition to taking steps to reduce climate pollutants, California has also recognized the need to prepare for climate change impacts that are already being felt. Farmers and ranchers are on the frontlines of these impacts, which include more severe drought, greater weather extremes (storms, and extreme heat) as well as shifting climate patterns over time (fewer chill hours, higher average temperatures, decreased snowpack).

This year, legislators passed several bills that lay out planning actions to prepare for climate impacts. SB 246 (Wieckowski) creates a program to coordinate local and regional planning efforts, drawing on a new adaptation information clearinghouse. The bill also creates a new state adaptation advisory council, which will include an agriculture representative. Another adaptation planning bill, AB 1482 (Gordon) takes the novel approach of prioritizing adaptation solutions that use “natural systems and natural infrastructure.” The bill directs state agencies to “[promote] actions to ensure healthy soils and sustainable agriculture” for their adaptation benefits.

Revving up Compost Production

Organic producer John Teixeira holding his compost.

Organic producer John Teixeira holding his compost.

The Legislature also passed a trio of bills to facilitate improved compost production infrastructure. These bills are a follow-up to two bills passed year, AB 1826 (Chesbro) and AB 1594 (Williams), that require a greater portion food and yard waste to be diverted from landfills.

Passed this year were AB 867 (McCarty), which improves local-level planning for diverted organic wastes; AB 1045 (Irwin), which streamlines the process for permitting compost production facilities; and AB 199 (Eggman), which provides tax incentives to build infrastructure for the production of compost and other soil amendments.

Meanwhile, the State is preparing to implement SB 605 (Lara), a bill passed last year that necessitates a plan to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, including methane generated by organic wastes rotting in landfills. That effort is expected to draw significant state investment in organic waste management, especially facilities for the production of compost. All of these efforts to increase compost production have potential value in increasing the availability of compost for farmers.

Onward

In 2016, legislative leaders and the Governor will continue efforts to pass new climate legislation that doubles down on the state’s climate targets. There will be ongoing discussions on how agriculture can reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions and enhance carbon sequestration.

This article is an excerpt of a post that appeared on the California Climate & Agriculture Network blog on Nov. 13. 

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