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Release No. 0645.10
Office of Communications (202)720-4623

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Transcript of Secretary Vilsack's remarks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico

December 9, 2010

As prepared for delivery

It is a pleasure to be with you this afternoon to talk to you about the efforts USDA is making to address global climate change.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our planet, and the United States is taking significant action to meet this challenge. Under President Obama's leadership, the U.S. is advancing policies that address climate change by promoting energy efficiency in our homes, cars and businesses, increasing the domestic production of clean energy – including biofuels – and by investing in renewable energy technology. The United States is also vigorously engaged in international climate negotiations while continuing to work with Congress on domestic climate legislation.

President Obama believes, as I do, that we can advance clean energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing our economy. This is particularly true for America's rural communities. Farmers, ranchers and forest owners have a tremendous amount to contribute to fighting climate change and to also ensuring that we adapt to climate change. Farmers are helping make America more energy independent while at the same time generating new rural income by producing renewable energy. And, I believe farmers, ranchers and forest owners have the potential to benefit from markets for greenhouse gas reductions that could provide other new economic opportunities. Indeed, addressing climate change will be much easier if we enlist landowners to produce energy and undertake practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the past 20 months, under President Obama's leadership, the US Department of Agriculture has made significant changes in how climate change is treated within the Department. Gone are the days where climate change was viewed as a research question or a problem for future generations.

In fact, the importance of climate change is reflected in a new USDA strategic plan that expresses the Department's priorities. USDA now emphasizes the importance of producing sustainable bioenergy and of ensuring that our farms, ranches and forests are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change.

We are already making significant strides in producing domestic biofuels and bioenergy. Currently, American farmers produce about 13 billion gallons of biofuels each year – a process which is growing more efficient by the year. And at USDA we're working hard to grow this industry and to do so in a way that fights climate change. We recently announced five regional research centers that focus, accelerate and coordinate the science and technology needed to produce feedstocks from farms, ranches and forests across the country. They are working to identify additional feedstocks and more efficient production processes to reduce greenhouse gases.

USDA is also investing in new biorefineries and facilities that can turn woody biomass into fuel and electricity. We've also signed agreements with the US Department of the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration to work on the process of generating new biofuels for jets and military vehicles.

USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program is helping farmers and forest owners produce, store and transport alternative feed stocks. New conservation practices, used in conjunction with the production of energy crops, that store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and new seed technology that increase crop yields will allow us to continue to improve the greenhouse gas footprint of bioenergy.

Improvements in productivity in agriculture are also critical to our long-term success in addressing food security and climate change. The sustainable intensification of agricultural systems can ensure food security, avoid deforestation and desertification, promote environmental stewardship, and meet the emerging demands for fiber and fuel. To do this we must fully embrace research and productivity-enhancing measures at all levels and scales.

In addition to producing renewable energy, both to replace fossil fuels as well as to improve conservation farming practices, there are significant opportunities for America's farmers, ranchers and forest owners to reduce greenhouse gases through improved conservation practices. For example, farmers can change the rate, timing, and form of nitrogen fertilizer applications and can use nitrogen inhibitors to slow the release of nitrogen into the soil. Dairies and hog farms can employ anaerobic digesters and can compost or land-apply manure at appropriate levels instead of relying on open pits and lagoons. Cattle operations can provide feeds that are efficient and reduce the generation of methane. They can also improve their pastures and grazing lands to store more carbon. These opportunities, of course, will be enhanced if we provide incentives to landowners to carry-out these conservation practices.

Simply put, we believe it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving the profitability of our farmers, ranchers and forest owners.

Agricultural emissions in the United States are small – less than 6% of our annual emissions –while our farms and forests sequester some 14% of the US's greenhouse gas emissions annually. But our working can lands can and must do more.

Even in the absence of national climate legislation, there remain opportunities for farmers, ranchers and forest owners to be compensated for greenhouse gas reducing activities through voluntary and state-run offset programs and through the actions of individual companies. USDA is committed to helping to work with America's farmers, ranchers and forest landowners so they are prepared to take advantage of greenhouse gas markets or other mechanisms that could provide significant income opportunities. USDA has worked for decades with landowners to implement land stewardship activities that reduce erosion, improve water quality, and protect the climate. Based on our experience, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can provide enormous benefits to our agricultural economy, and our environment.

For example, last year at Copenhagen, we signed an agreement with the Innovation Center for US Dairy, an organization working to improve the sustainability of dairy farming. Since signing this agreement, USDA has awarded funding to 30 anaerobic digesters and we are helping farmers examine the feasibility of installing new digesters. We're also partnering with the Innovation Center to help farmers undertake energy audits and conservation measures that can help them be more profitable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The leadership shown by the Innovation Center and the dairy industry is outstanding and I believe there are opportunities for other parts of agriculture and forestry as well.

To capture these opportunities, we need to provide farmers and landowners, who understand the value of the corn, wheat, livestock, timber and other products they produce, with information on how protecting the environment through actions such as carbon sequestration, reduced nitrous oxide emissions from fertilization, and reduced emissions and methane capture for livestock can also bring economic savings.

Today, I am announcing important steps USDA is taking to make farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners even better conservationists. Through these efforts, USDA will:

  • Demonstrate opportunities for farmers, ranchers and forest owners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase sequestration while improving their bottom line.
  • Provide opportunities to leverage private sector demand for greenhouse gas mitigation services.
  • Evaluate how emerging voluntary and State greenhouse gas markets and USDA conservation programs can work in concert to protect the environment.
  • Build capacity within the Department to understand voluntary greenhouse gas markets and to explore improved approaches for greenhouse gas accounting systems.

Over the coming months, several agencies of USDA will be rolling out new efforts in order to fulfill this aggressive agenda.

Through the Conservation Innovation Grants Program, our Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will fund $15 million in large-scale demonstration tests of greenhouse gas mitigation practices on private lands. We will test new approaches, figure out the best ways to assess and verify the environmental benefits achieved, and explore how greenhouse gas markets could function on a large scale. In the long term, this should accelerate the adoption of conservation practices and systems for climate mitigation.

In a new initiative, our Farm Service Agency will use the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to help landowners measure the greenhouse gas benefits of planting trees on environmentally sensitive croplands. This effort will show farmers directly and clearly how they can benefit from participating in carbon markets. We'll use tools developed by the Forest Service so farmers see estimates of the carbon that is expected to be sequestered by their actions.

As part of this effort, we are also going to provide farmers with another tool, called Carbon Net, which will allow farmers to market their carbon on a voluntary basis. We'll be modeling this new service on our successful Hay Net listing service. What we have found in our domestic hay markets is that there were information gaps. Farmers that are producing hay were not able to effectively tap into demand – and those who needed hay had a hard time finding the best price. We suspect that this is also true in emerging voluntary carbon markets. So, USDA will use the CRP program as a laboratory to see how well this new tool works for both landowners and the climate.

But unless we can convince investors, government and the public that environmental markets are providing verifiable benefits – they will never get off the ground. That is why we must use science based-systems that properly monitor and measure greenhouse gas reduction practices on farms, ranches and forests.

To ensure that the projects I am announcing today truly move us forward in understanding voluntary greenhouse gas markets, I've asked our National Institute on Food and Agriculture - which funds and coordinates extramural research for the Department - to work with our universities and academic cooperators to independently gather and analyze data on the effectiveness of all aspects of our greenhouse gas demonstrations. We'll be seeking proposals from independent researchers to evaluate the performance of these demonstrations and to help us maximize the lessons learned.

Our focus is to build capacity, within USDA and across the country so that we will be in a better position to understand what works and what doesn't. This information will be valuable to us in our management of conservation programs – and will be critical in the future as we think through how agriculture and forests can play a constructive role in a broader strategy to combat climate change.

It is important to accurately quantify the benefits from land management and conservation activities, including carbon emissions and sequestration opportunities. USDA has decades of on-the-ground experience working with producers to implement conservation practices – and we are prepared to help lead in this latest effort to address greenhouse gases reductions from our farms, ranches, and forests.

Our efforts need to be supported by the best science, which is why today I am announcing a Climate Change Science Plan for our Department. The plan will allow us to evaluate current and potential investments in climate change science activities as we integrate climate change into all that we do. It stresses our commitment to developing science-based knowledge and tools to help mitigate the impacts of climate change – while also working to prepare for its impact. It urges us to pursue science that will help us understand the direct and indirect effects of climate change on natural and managed ecosystems, and to find ways to help them adapt and stay resilient.

But while we are doing our part domestically, the Obama administration and UDSA are also working to take part in the global response to this challenge. Through the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases – which I was proud to help launch last year at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen – we are working with a host of international partners to mitigate and stem the effects of man-made climate change.

The Alliance is focused on research, development and extension of technologies and practices that will help deliver ways to grow more food - and to develop more climate-resilient food systems - without growing greenhouse gas emissions. It will also find better ways to share research results, technologies and best practices, among nations and get these out to farmers on the ground.

The Alliance also seeks to include developing nations in the pursuit of the new tools and agricultural practices needed to meet the challenge of global climate change. This October, I announced that USDA had selected 10 researchers from seven developing countries as Global Research Alliance Norman E. Borlaug Fellows to work side-by-side with U.S. scientists on climate change mitigation research. We hope that by making our research an international endeavor, we can do more to find solutions that work for developing nations.

And their work will be truly critical. While many folks in developed nations think of climate change in less immediate terms; for our brothers and sisters in the developing world, climate change could have a dramatic impact on the availability of food to feed an already-hungry and growing population.

USDA is working with our US Government partners in the Feed the Future initiative which is confronting global hunger by helping build sustainable and profitable agriculture sectors in vulnerable countries through improved agricultural productivity, post-harvest handling, and expanded markets and trade.

And our research capacity – coupled with our Global Research Alliance partners – has a lot to offer. The countries at the core of the Feed the Future initiative—Bangladesh, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya to name a few—are all at severe risk from floods, drought and extreme heat caused by climate change. USDA's 100 years of experience in water management, 80 years of crop breeding for resistance to weather-related stress, 50 years of research on the effects of increased oxygen and carbon dioxide on plant yields and pathogens make the Department uniquely suited to help address these challenges.

The last thing I want to talk about today is the work we are doing in our nation's forests. Of course, forests are particularly important to reducing global greenhouse gases. The Obama administration believes that there is no solution to the challenge of global warming unless we take proper care of the world's forests. And, our actions domestically reflect this. USDA is home to the US Forest Service which manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands for the American people. These lands are already seeing significant climate-induced impacts, including millions of acres of pine trees killed by the mountain pine beetle that has expanded as a result of warmer temperatures that both allow far more beetles to live through the winter while making trees more vulnerable during the growing season.

Just as the US government is working with other nations to develop proposals that reward forested nations for the steps they take to reduce deforestation and forest degradation, so, too, we in the United States are taking steps to conserve our forests. Over the last year, the Forest Service has taken a number of steps to integrate considerations about climate change into its day-to-day operations.

The Forest Service has developed a National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change which outlines a series of actions that the agency will take to improve the science around the impacts of climate change on our forests, to make our forests more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and to ensure management of our forests reduces greenhouse gas emissions and increases carbon storage. In conjunction with this roadmap, the Forest Service developed a scorecard by which we will measure the progress each of our 153 National Forests makes in fully integrating climate considerations into forest management.

Beyond the roadmap and our scorecard, the Forest Service is also integrating climate change into the development of our new national Planning Rule that will govern the way we manage all our National Forests. And our work extends past the land we manage directly. Because most forest land in the United States is privately-owned, the USDA Forest Service also works with states and private landowners to conserve, restore, and manage our privately owned forests.

Of course, internationally, deforestation and forest degradation account for approximately 17% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, second only to the energy sector and more than global transport. Moreover, healthy forests are essential to the livelihoods and welfare of millions of people in both developed and developing countries; they are home to some of the planet's most significant biodiversity and they help to maintain healthy ecosystems and clean water.

It is this conviction that underpins the commitment that the United States made last year in Copenhagen. At that time, it was my honor to have announced that the US would become a leading donor to this cause and dedicate $1 billion over a three year period to help countries slow, halt, and reverse deforestation. Since then, the United States has begun making new REDD-plus investments in earnest through a variety of channels. In 2010 alone, we expect to have allocated over $200M for REDD-plus activities. This includes:

  • Over $30M to multilateral institutions, including the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and Forest Investment Program.
  • $35-40M to global programs, including a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program to help countries develop greenhouse gas inventories; a program with NASA to provide remote sensing data to countries; and a new initiative under "GEO", the Group on Earth Observations, to apply U.S. science, technology, innovation and expertise - in partnership with developing countries - to monitor and manage forest and terrestrial carbon.
  • $35-40M for regional programs in the Andean Amazon, West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa, to implement regional capacity building programs and build south-south partnerships.
  • And more than $100M in bilateral funds to countries, largely through our AID missions but also through our technical agencies such as US Forest Service, to help preserve forests in more than 20 countries.

Specific examples of projects include:

In Colombia we are working with indigenous and Afro Colombian communities, using a variety of tools including economic incentives, to conserve forests.

The U.S. Forest Service and USAID are cooperating with scientists and forest managers in Brazil to contribute to the Brazilian National Forest Inventory, including collaboration on a study to explore options for estimating forest carbon in REDD+ projects.

We are starting a new program with Indonesian partners that will mobilize U.S. expert cooperation and training to improve peat land emissions data, understanding of carbon dynamics, and mapping and monitoring of carbon-rich peat lands and tropical forests.

The U.S. Forest Service is also working with government and NGO representatives from India, Nepal, and Bhutan to exchange experience and technologies on forest inventory and monitoring, which will help these countries to assess the impact of climate change on watersheds that support over 1 billion people, as well as monitor forest carbon for possible REDD+ activities.

The work around REDD is indicative that while confronting climate change presents enormous challenges, there are also opportunities for forested countries to protect forests and profit from doing so. Likewise, as USDA works with farmers, ranchers and forest owners in the United States, we recognize the challenges that climate change presents. But, we also recognize that new markets for reducing emissions, sequestering carbon and producing sustainable bioenergy can provide new sources of revenue for agriculture and forestry. USDA looks forward to working with our partners domestically and internationally to meet the climate challenge while improving economic conditions for agriculture and forestry.