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Agriculture Should be Part of Our Carbon Policy

In light of President Barack Obama’s looming carbon regulations for existing U.S. power plants, it’s worth remembering that a comprehensive climate policy needs to do more than tackle smokestacks.

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In light of President Barack Obama’s looming carbon regulations for existing U.S. power plants, it’s worth remembering that a comprehensive climate policy needs to do more than tackle smokestacks.

It also needs to do something about agriculture. And more broadly, Texans and the rest of the nation need to think more environmentally about the way they eat.

After fossil fuel combustion, agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the nation. Despite consuming 2 percent or less of our energy, agriculture generates 10 percent of our emissions.

And while other sectors of the economy are reducing emissions, agriculture is heading in the opposite direction. This trend is bad for Texas and the U.S.

Agriculture primarily emits two potent greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, from activities such as the application of nitrogen-based fertilizers, manure management and burps from cows. And, agriculture is a source of dust and precursors for air pollution.

But, agriculture often gets a pass when it comes to air quality laws.

Historians can debate why this happened in the past, but to allow it to continue by giving agriculture a pass on its greenhouse gas emissions would be a huge mistake moving forward.

Regulations on carbon emissions disproportionately affect states that rely heavily on coal-fired electricity such as Indiana and Illinois, while states such as Washington that rely on hydropower would not be noticeably affected.

By contrast, everyone in America eats, so putting a price on the carbon intensity of food would spread more uniformly across society so we all share in the benefits and costs.

It’s true that farmers will have to make adaptations, but through incentives we can make these revenue neutral for farmers who lower emissions.

If we were to put a price on agricultural carbon, consumers would face higher prices for more carbon-intensive foods, such as meat. The change would encourage healthy shifts in diet and could dramatically lower emissions, because meat is known to be much more carbon-intensive to produce than fruits, grains and vegetables.

The agricultural sector may balk, saying that holding it accountable for emissions the way we hold other sectors of the economy accountable will be bad for business. But this is not true. There are plenty of ways farmers can adapt to a lower carbon world and even find new revenue streams in the process.

Consider the 100 million tons of manure that livestock generate each year. Those piles are a major source of greenhouse gases and a major headache for farmers, who have to deal with economic, environmental and legal liability from odor and handling costs.

Those same mounds of manure, however, are potentially a rich source of biogas, which could offset 4 percent of our annual natural gas consumption. This might be one of the easiest, cheapest and fastest ways to produce a significant amount of renewable, low-carbon, domestic energy that is available around the clock.

Another big opportunity is to reduce food waste. Amazingly, anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of our food is wasted, which amounts to a tremendous, equally wasteful use of energy and emissions. We quite literally throw that food-energy right into the garbage.

Reducing food waste is a straightforward way to reduce energy and emissions from the food system, and it should save money for everyone along the entire food supply chain, from farmers to retailers to grocery shoppers.

Most important, certain land management techniques can sequester hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into soils each year. No one is better suited to do this at larger scale than the agricultural sector. Putting carbon back into the soil from conservation programs does society an important service, and farmers should be paid handsomely for it.

The time has arrived to tackle climate change in a comprehensive way. At a policy level, we have to stop giving agriculture a free pass. If we can drive more efficient cars, insulate our homes and use less coal, surely we can also reduce emissions from the food we eat.

Michael Webber is the deputy director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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