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Climate change action: Cutting emissions isn't enough

Residents of Bear Creek Valley living through the disastrous fires last September know the threat that global warming poses. Rural Oregonians know we are on the front lines — none more so than we Southern Oregonians.

We know the temperature is rising and rainfall is declining during summer, and that snowpack is declining during winter. We know these trends are drying soils and vegetation through summer and thereby increasing fire risk because we have suffered from, and constantly live with, that risk. Climate changes impact what grows in our forests, what and how we grow our food, and where and how we recreate. With three devastating hurricanes, extreme wildfires, hail, flooding, tornadoes and drought, the United States tallied a record high bill in 2020 for weather-related disasters of $306 billion.

We understand that ongoing, unchecked global warming, driven by increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from our behavior will make the problem worse.

Fortunately, we can control the trend by adjusting our behavior. Indeed, climate science summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that limiting global warming and its climate change impacts to manageable proportions, we must keep the global temperature increase under 3 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial revolution (1700s) conditions. The IPCC also tells us persuasively that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 is necessary but insufficient. In addition, both the IPCC and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences tell us that to achieve the goals of climate mitigation and economic growth we must both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and capture and store more carbon dioxide using Negative Emission Technologies (NETs). To capture and store (sequester) carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we need programs that include NETs.

The 2020 Oregon Global Warming Commission Biennial Report pointed out that Oregon is not meeting state emissions reduction targets established by our Legislature in 2007. Regrettably, that the program is purely voluntary and polluters have failed to reduce their emissions sufficiently. Meanwhile, attempts to legislate climate action have been repeatedly thwarted because many of our representatives either resist state action or simply walk out of the legislative chamber to defeat proposals. As a result, in March 2020 Gov. Kate Brown signed Executive Order 20-04 (dubbed the Oregon Climate Action Plan or OCAP) charging state agencies with reducing emissions and providing a route for Oregon to join the global campaign to address climate change.

Although it doesn’t target net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the governor’s executive order targets emissions reductions of at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The EO recognizes the IPCC emphasis on carbon sequestration by charging the state Forestry and Agriculture agencies with promoting carbon sequestration by rural land managers. The catch is that financial incentives are necessary if we are to encourage our neighbors to adopt carbon sequestration practices. Unfortunately, because the governor has no independent authority to raise revenue, the OCAP cannot raise revenue to fund incentives.

The basic mechanism under development by the Department of Environmental Quality for reducing emissions from stationary sources (industries and power plants) involves issuing to these emitters, then annually reducing, the number of compliance instruments (allowances). There is, however, an opportunity within this proposal to provide a funding stream to incentivize carbon sequestration. That opportunity involves so-called Alternative Compliance Instruments (ACIs — previously termed ‘offsets’). ACIs could allow emitters to achieve a portion of their emissions reductions by financially investing in projects that either, for example: (a) generate energy from renewable resources (reducing fossil fuel use and the associated resulting emissions), or (b) subsidize carbon capture by ranchers, farmers, foresters, and others who sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in their soils or forests.

Rural and coastal Oregonians are not only on the front lines of global warming, as noted initially, we are also economically depressed communities. The beauty of providing polluters with an opportunity to invest in rural and coastal forests and farming communities that subsidize carbon sequestration is that, while serving the global need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, we simultaneously stimulate depressed economies.

It is critical to note, however, that use of ACIs by emitters must be subjected to regulations that both prevent them from substituting ACIs for emissions reductions when the latter are possible, and that protect front line communities from the environmental injustices to which they have been subjected for years. Meanwhile, carbon sequestration projects must be certified as meeting reasonable requirements.

To support the inclusion of Alternative Compliance Instruments, please email DEQ at GHGCR2021@deq.state.or.us and the Oregon Global Warming Commission at Oregon.GWC@Oregon.gov.

Ray Seidler (Rayseidler@msn.com) is a steering committee member of Cultivate Oregon. Alan Journet (alan@socan.eco) is co-facilitator of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now.