The Growing Climate Solutions Act Could Be A Racist, Greenwashing Handout to Big Ag. Or It Could Be Great.

Hey all!

I liked leaving you with one simple message last week, so I am going to try it again this week. The theme for this week is this: we need more!

I see a lot of bashing in the climate world of this solution or that solution. This one won’t work, that one won’t scale, this one is a waste of time, etc.

Look, it is good to look at things with a critical eye. And we all have biases in terms of which solutions will have the highest impact. But I will tell you what, I just want more. More innovation. More activism. More education. More policy. More funding. More storytelling. More research. More behavior change. And same goes for solutions within technology. More wind. More solar. More geothermal. More nuclear. More fusion. More building efficiency. More CCS. More DAC. And on and on.

That doesn’t mean I am not going to put my weight behind the ones I personally think are most promising. And it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do the same. But it does mean we will get a lot further, I believe, by growing the pie vs fighting over who should have the biggest piece. When I see people focusing on areas I don’t think will be most impactful, I still celebrate them and still believe their efforts will help mine, and vice versa. Momentum begins momentum, and more resources devoted to addressing this wicked systems problem, regardless of where they are allocated, are good for all of us working in this area.

Have a good week, everyone!

Jason & Team MCJ

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The Growing Climate Solutions Act Could Be A Racist, Greenwashing Handout to Big Ag. Or It Could Be Great.

by Chris Tolles

In June, S. 1251, the Growing Climate Solutions Act (hereafter, the Act) was passed by the US Senate in a 92-8 vote. 

Wait, what?! Since when does the US Congress agree on anything 92-8?! When it’s one part climate policy and one part agricultural subsidy, that’s when.

The Act would authorize the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to establish a voluntary Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program to help reduce entry barriers into voluntary environmental credit markets for farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners.” Simplifying a bit, the Act would get USDA involved in the evaluation and administration of methodologies underpinning climate benefit claims (e.g. “tons removed”) from a variety of sources, including forestry, agriculture, ranching, and other so-called nature-based solutions (NbS).

A Brief Interlude

Before we go further, a key disclaimer: I run a soil carbon measurement company called Yard Stick. I am far from a neutral observer in this conversation. You should be suspicious of the opinions of a CEO whose company stands to benefit from a piece of proposed legislation, as mine does with this one. Honestly, you should be suspicious of all CEOs. Anyway.

What’s Great About NbS? Why all the buzz about forestry and soil at all? 

Plants pretty literally “eat” atmospheric CO2, which is one of the GHGs we’re most trying to get rid of. Amazing! This observation has been made by generations of ecologists, soil scientists, and climatologists who have wondered how trees and crops could be harnessed to serve as a carbon removal mechanism. 

But it’s hard. Forests burn down. Soils are vulnerable to reversal. Both efforts are particularly hard to measure against “business as usual,” which results in some pretty sketchy carbon market shenanigans even among major players who should (did?) know better.

So against this backdrop of widespread private-sector failure, who wouldn’t want government oversight on these processes and claims? Wouldn’t that bring increased scrutiny, standardization, and quality to the whole thing? 

Maybe.

This is why Yard Stick is a tentative supporter of the Act, but the devil’s in the details. Let’s look at a few of those devils up close.

1. Maybe It’ll Be Super Racist

The Act puts USDA in charge of these programs. You know, the same USDA who was forced to settle the largest civil rights class-action lawsuit in US history 20+ years ago? The same USDA who approved Black farmers’ loan forgiveness applications at half the rate of white farmers’ only last year? Regenerative agriculture already has a huge race problem - will this just further entrench it?

To his credit, Ag Sec Tom Vilsack has recently told whiny white farmers to stfu, but still, this isn’t an organization with a great track record on equitable distribution of benefits. Mass land theft and disenfranchisement are the foundation of US agriculture, and the Act must confront this terrible fact unflinchingly to earn our real support.

2. Maybe It’ll Just Be Greenwashing

What USDA intends to do with the Act is hard. There’s material scientific disagreement over measurement best practices in this sector, even among experts who’ve devoted their careers to these questions. If the science isn’t resolved, how likely is it that the standards USDA promotes will lead to real climate impact? Climate research advocacy organization CarbonPlan recently did a roundup of 14 top soil carbon methodologies, and only 2 of them got even 3/5 checks. Is that good enough?

This is also not USDA’s first rodeo in climate-friendly agricultural practices, and existing programs like CRP can be disappointing when you look under the hood. Can they do better this time?

The Act’s impact legitimacy will hang on its recruitment of, and deference to, high-quality scientific experts who prioritize climate rigor over accessibility and ease of adoption.

3. Maybe It’ll Be A Big Ag Handout

USDA loves Big Ag. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Big farms produce most of our food and US farms have gotten bigger over time, though this transition has also revealed and exacerbated already-stark racial and socioeconomic disparities. It’s USDA’s job to support agriculture in the US, and US agriculture is Big, for better and worse. However, a large group of agricultural and environmental organizations have rightly criticized the Act for likely accommodating big operations to the detriment of small ones.

While the Act explicitly includes provisions to consider impacts on, and accessibility for, “socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers,” talk is cheap. If the past (or Big Ag lobbying budgets) is any indicator, it could be hard for smaller farmers and ranchers to get the goods the Act intends to provide.

So What?

None of these challenges are insurmountable. But NbS is hard to get right, and USDA’s track record is mixed. For the Act to result in real climate benefits, legislators must require USDA to address these challenges head-on via explicit policy details, which will now be hammered out in the House before the Act can become law. So write your Congresspeople and tell them to do as much!

For now, the Act gets a wary but hopeful thumbs-up from Yard Stick. The hard work to get from there to full enthusiasm is theirs to undertake.

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🎙Startup Series

This week, Jason caught up with Jasmine Crowe, Founder & CEO of Goodr Co. Goodr, a sustainable food surplus management company leveraging technology to reduce food waste and feed the hungry.

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