Commentary: Carbon pricing just lets industries buy a right to pollute

By Amanda Claire Starbuck

Progressive Media Project

On Earth Day, the Biden administration unveiled new emissions reductions goals, as part of its effort to make the climate crisis a priority for every government agency. Similarly, Congress has introduced a flurry of bills aimed at making agriculture “net zero” in terms of its carbon footprint.

But there’s a problem: Both the Department of Agriculture and Congress are chasing market-based carbon schemes over real climate action.

Climate action must, of course, include the agriculture sector. While food production is a large human contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, practices like no-till agriculture, cover cropping and managed grazing can reduce emissions and make farmland more resilient. Over the years, USDA programs have incentivized such practices, but are chronically underfunded.

Carbon-pricing schemes turn these practices into “credits” that can be sold to polluters who want to avoid reducing their own emissions. Biden’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has expressed interest in a “carbon bank” proposal where the government would purchase offsets from farmers, with payments based on the amount of carbon supposedly sequestered. And the Growing Climate Solution Act, introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, would direct the USDA to create a carbon credit certification program, so farmers can sell offsets into private carbon markets.

These and other proposals wrongfully treat our nation’s farmland as endless carbon sinks. They promote corporate greenwashing and enable polluters to continue spewing emissions into our atmosphere. Pursuing carbon pricing will just delay necessary action and ensure we will not meet our goal of remaining below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

The polluters buying credits don’t care whether offset programs actually reduce emissions. They, after all, have a vested interest in our continued use of fossil fuels. And these programs let them spend a small amount of money to be able to claim they are taking climate seriously while continuing to spew pollution.

Opponents of these schemes call them “pay-to-pollute” for a reason: The whole point is to enable polluting industries to continue business as usual. One analysis of California’s cap-and-trade program found that 82% of credits reviewed “likely do not represent true emissions reductions,” due to lenient accounting rules for leakage.

Pollution trading markets also exacerbate existing environmental injustices. Poorer neighborhoods and communities of color, already disproportionately burdened by pollution, will continue to breathe toxic air and drink polluted water if industrial facilities can buy their way out of reducing emissions.

Moreover, federal agricultural payments have historically benefited the largest farms and white farmers at the expense of socially disadvantaged ones. A carbon bank could easily follow the same patterns, and even promote further farmland consolidation. And organic farmers and others who have already invested in regenerative practices could be left out of this carbon bank.

We cannot allow the corporate giants that prop up unsustainable farming systems to profit from false climate solutions. Farmers need support to transition to organic and regenerative farming systems. Programs to do so already exist, although they are oversubscribed and underfunded. This is where we should boost funding, not on letting companies pay to pollute.

During his confirmation hearings, critics of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack (who held the same position under President Barack Obama) noted the grim reality of his record: increased industry consolidation, the explosive growth of mega-polluting factory farms and racial discrimination. Vilsack promised to learn from the past and chart a new course.

If he really means it, then he should reject phony market schemes like carbon banks, and work to promote policies that will encourage healthy farms, healthy soil and meaningful climate action.

Amanda Starbuck is the senior food researcher and policy analyst at the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.