The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Congress funds high-tech climate solutions, it also bets on a low-tech one: Nature

From boosting forest preservation to incentivizing climate-smart farming practices, the Inflation Reduction Act includes an acknowledgement that land is a profound ally in the fight against climate change

The Cutfoot Experimental Forest, located within the Chippewa National Forest on Sept. 4, 2019, near Squaw Lake, Minn. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
8 min

Tax breaks for electric vehicles. Huge incentives to ramp up carbon-capture facilities, urge green hydrogen production and boost U.S. manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and next-generation batteries. The landmark Inflation Reduction Act that passed Friday includes $369 billion in climate- and energy-related funding — much of it aimed at high-tech solutions to help nudge the world’s biggest historical emitter toward a greener future.

But beyond those headline-making investments, the legislation acknowledges a less-heralded but essential part of the effort to combat climate change: nature. Or, more precisely, that given a chance, nature can be a profound ally in the fight against climate change.

“It’s historic, without a doubt,” said Tom Cors, director of North America policy and government relations at the Nature Conservancy. He called new funding to protect forests and boost climate-friendly agriculture practices a “once-in-a-generation investment.”

Climate change’s impact intensifies as U.S. prepares to take action

The money set aside for “nature-based” climate solutions includes about $20 billion for agricultural conservation and $5 billion to safeguard forests around the country, according to the Congressional Research Service.

While those numbers pale in comparison to other big-ticket items, many environmental advocates say such investments are critical in giving the nation a better shot at hitting long-term climate goals, and serve as a reminder that taking care of the land has added benefits to wildlife and human health.

“We can actually get a big bang for our buck by addressing climate solutions that also address the nature crisis,” Cors said. “Natural climate solutions are not a substitute for decarbonizing our economy and energy sector. But it’s a complement so that we can hit more emissions reductions than we could otherwise.”

Still, it remains uncertain whether the current legislation will ultimately dole out money in the most effective and lasting ways.

“The devil is always in the details,” said Peter Reich, a University of Minnesota researcher who has long studied the impact of global warming on forests. “Exactly how you spend the money can have marginally good impacts on slowing climate change or much better ones.”

This much is clear: To slow Earth’s warming, humans will have to rely on a major assist from trees, wetlands, peatland and other landscapes that soak up massive amounts of carbon dioxide each year. But land also releases greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere as wildfires burn, forests are razed, permafrost melts or wetlands are drained.

If humans mismanage the land by recklessly razing forests or by farming in unsustainable ways, emissions that warm the planet can increase. By contrast, embracing smarter farming practices and caring for forests in ways that reduce wildfire risk, for instance, can make reaching climate goals more realistic.

Healthy forests, restored wetlands and undisturbed prairies can pull billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere annually. That makes land the biggest and most reliable carbon-sequestration tool the world currently has, and worth protecting.

“Climate change is harming our forests at the very time we need them to fight climate change,” said Jad Daley, president of the nonprofit conservation group American Forests. “If we lose what forests are currently doing for us, we have no chance. They can help us or they can hurt us, depending on the time and energy we put into it.”

In fast-warming Minnesota, scientists are trying to plant the forests of the future

Daley noted that last year’s infrastructure spending package included significant support for reforestation initiatives, and President Biden this year signed an executive order aimed at strengthening forest management. Even so, some conservation efforts have historically operated on shoestring budgets or without dedicated funding at all.

“Just the fact that forests were included is really, really substantial,” he said. “I have worked on this issue without stopping for 15 years. It’s always felt like we were the last guest on the list invited to the dinner party.”

The Inflation Reduction Act would help supercharge existing efforts, he said, including $700 million for a program to permanently protect forested land through conservation easements and acquisitions by local governments, $450 million to help private landowners more effectively manage forests and $100 million to fund grants for innovative and climate-friendly uses for wood.

Then there are the billions dedicated to helping reduce the risk of wildfires on public lands, as well as funding to help cities scale up urban forestry programs that both absorb carbon and help to create shade to combat deadly “heat islands.”

Both those initiatives have a climate benefit, Daley said, but also help address serious impacts already inflicting suffering on millions of Americans.

“It’s an environmental issue, but it’s also a moral imperative,” he said.

When she ran for mayor of Tucson in 2019, Regina Romero vowed to plant 1 million trees in the desert city by 2030, primarily in low-income communities with little tree canopy. She viewed planting so many trees as a key climate policy, but also as a fairness issue that would help increase shade, lower utility bills and improve animal habitats.

One challenge is that the effort could cost tens of millions of dollars — money that isn’t readily available. Romero said she has raised roughly $650,000 through private funding and hired an urban forestry manager, among other policies. But help from the Inflation Reduction Act, she says, could be a game-changing.

“We are so absolutely ready for these funds,” Romero said in an interview, adding that she hopes the city can become a model for implementing nature-based climate solutions in an urban setting. “It will absolutely help us scale up our efforts and our goals.”

On the agriculture side, the legislation would pour nearly $20 billion of additional funding in existing federal conservation programs that incentivize farmers and ranchers to embrace a range of climate-friendly practices, including planting cover crops, better managing water sources, and conserving grasslands and other landscapes that sequester carbon.

One program slated to receive an additional $8.45 billion is the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which offers financial and technical assistance to farmers and nonindustrial forest managers for efforts designed to “lead to cleaner water and air, healthier soil and better wildlife habitat, all while improving agricultural operations.”

Advocates note that EQIP and other existing conservation programs are oversubscribed by as much as 3 to 1, and that the new funding will help to satisfy that overwhelming demand.

“We are equipping farmers, foresters, and rural communities with the necessary tools to be a part of the solution,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement after the bill passed that chamber.

She noted that the legislation’s climate-smart agriculture, forestry and rural energy programs “are supported by more than 1700 farm groups, companies, environmental advocates, leading economists, local elected officials and municipalities, and trade associations.”

But the bill hasn’t been universally embraced.

Silvia Secchi, an economist and geographer at the University of Iowa, said a key problem with the legislation is that it doesn’t break new ground. Rather, she said, it funds existing programs that are purely voluntary, that pay farmers for practices many already are doing, and that offer no guarantee any changes will lead to permanent greenhouse gas reductions.

“There is really no stick here; it is all carrot,” Secchi said. She said the bill doesn’t compel action on major climate-related issues associated with the agricultural, such as animal waste and fertilizer overuse.

A victory at whose expense? Climate activists grapple with political compromise.

“Will this funding solve every problem? No,” said Aviva Glaser, senior director of agriculture policy for the National Wildlife Federation.

But at the same time, she said the new money could have a “transformative” impact if it helps farmers and ranchers more broadly adopt practices that are good not only for climate change but also for wildlife and for soil and water quality.

“We have to be working with them to solve the climate crisis,” Glaser said. “And there are a lot of farmers and ranchers and foresters out here who are ready to. They just need the assistance. … This is going to provide it.”

The Inflation Reduction Act does not include all the funding that supporters of nature-based solutions would want. It also won’t, on its own, protect all the landscapes that need protecting or fully get the nation on track to the emissions-cutting goals that Biden has outlined.

But to many climate advocates, it beats the gridlock that has persisted on Capitol Hill for so long.

“Is it enough money? No, there needs to be more,” Cors said. “[But] two weeks ago there wasn’t going to be a bill. There was going to be nothing. And that’s simply not an option.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.