Greening the infrastructure conversation

Three ways to bring land-based carbon removal to life in an infrastructure package

by Giana Amador, policy director, and Ugbaad Kosar, deputy director of policy

Climate conversations have been inundated with a debate over what should be considered infrastructure. Bridges and water treatment systems come to mind for most. However, a paradigm shift at the federal level is quickly gaining traction — a more expansive (and equitable) approach to infrastructure found in Biden’s American Jobs Plan which ties in electric car charging stations, bolsters wrap-around services, and calls for investments into next-generation climate technologies. On the other hand, Congress has taken a much more focused and traditional approach to infrastructure with bills like the LIFT America Act.

However, what’s noticeably missing from these conversations today is the role of green infrastructure. We know that forests and soil carbon play a significant role in drawing down atmospheric carbon, while serving as important water management systems in urban and rural communities. Our forests and agriculture systems have their own enabling infrastructure needs to remain durable and should be at the table.

What is green infrastructure?

Green infrastructure (in contrast to ‘grey infrastructure’) relies on nature-based systems to protect and manage water resources in communities — these systems can be a cost-effective approach to improve and maintain water quality while also providing other environmental, economic, and social benefits. Green infrastructure can be broadly categorized into three groups: 1) urban green infrastructure, 2) coastal green infrastructure, 3) watershed-based green infrastructure. Notably, reforestation, urban tree planting, wetland restoration, and soil carbon sequestration practices are all various types of green infrastructure that protect water sources while removing and storing carbon.

As the Biden administration and Congress continue to consider infrastructure investments that enable climate action and promote community resilience, green infrastructure should be a core priority. Here are three ways to incorporate land-based carbon removal in infrastructure plans:

1. Address the limitations of forest and agriculture supply chains

The ability to naturally regenerate forests is becoming increasingly uncertain — already, a tree experiences significant habitat impacts in its life, vulnerable to physiological stress, pest outbreaks, severe wildfires, and large-scale dieback. Many forested areas will likely need active planting to address this loss. But this means overcoming a major limiting factor: seedlings. A recent study highlighted that seed nursery capacity in the US must be more than doubled before we’re able to reforest more than 66 million acres of available land by 2040. Additional investment to expand nurseries is critical to scale up seedling collection, production, and related workforce development to meet reforestation goals. Loan guarantee programs at the USDA and bills such as the SOS for Seedlings Act can support nursery infrastructure expansion.

There is also an opportunity to expand processing infrastructure for compost and mulch, creating a viable local supply chain. Applying compost and mulch to agricultural fields can not only improve yields, but also store carbon in soils. However, the processing of on-farm waste to develop these soil amendments at meaningful scales requires an upfront investment too significant for any single agricultural operation to cover. Loan guarantee or other grant programs at the USDA can support the expansion of regional and rural facilities to redirect organic waste from the farm waste stream and ensure local supply of compost and mulch. This would help resolve the logistical challenges farmers face in sourcing compost to apply to their fields and provide an economic development opportunity for rural communities.

2. Improve data collection and management

Better data collection and management will be integral to scaling both forestry and agriculture solutions. In agriculture systems, better data lights the path forward for producers and project sponsors alike. Farmers and ranchers need better information to make management decisions for their operations; policymakers and businesses looking to incentivize carbon storage need better data on the link between soil health practices and long-term outcomes. They also need to understand the true costs and benefits farmers face when adopting these practices. All of this is especially true for less studied geographies and operation types (eg. ranching systems, specialty crop systems, western US agriculture as opposed to midwestern US agriculture). If we can improve data collection and synthesize it along these critical dimensions, we can develop cost model-based monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) tools, guide public and private sector incentive design, and ultimately scale soil carbon sequestration.

While there is significant data collection on soil carbon happening today across the US, improvements are needed in data richness, management, access, and connectivity across existing soil carbon monitoring networks and field experiments. The USDA should work to bring together existing data and set parameters for future data collection across the USDA Climate Hubs, the NRCS Soil Surveys National Resources Inventory, NEON, LTAR, and other networks.

For forest owners and land managers, the mechanisms for data collection may look different, but the need for centralized and comprehensive data remains true. The Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program, housed within USFS, is the primary source on the status, conditions, and trends of US forests and forest resources. The USFS is a global leader in developing tools to measure and manage forest carbon, but the FIA needs support to meet the growing demand for information under a changing climate.

Specifically, the FIA should expand the plot network by intensifying baseline sampling data to address regional gaps and support local land managers with decision-making. Also, the FIA should accelerate and improve data collection by remeasuring plots every three years and using advanced monitoring tools to better represent short-term disturbances and ecological changes to landscapes. Lastly, the USFS should improve the accessibility of FIA data by updating databases and creating new tools to make this information more accessible to users without technical data expertise.

3. Expand access to broadband internet in rural communities

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant disparity in access to reliable internet across the US, spurring federal efforts to close the ‘digital divide’. There are at least 19 million people who don’t have access to broadband in the US, disproportionately impacting rural and Tribal communities. Access to broadband internet can support agriculture and forestry communities looking to improve data collection, adopt precision technology applications, and support broader job creation and growth.

Together, these types of green infrastructure investments will be critical to not only harnessing the myriad water, air, environmental, and economic benefits of land management practices, but also to unlock a new wedge of climate action. We’re seeing similar pushes to include land-based carbon removal coming from the Hill and look forward to watching this conversation evolve.

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