Nitrogen trading moves into limelight


Hold the carbon credit trading schemes. Now shoving its way into the climate change limelight is nitrogen trading.

Nitrogen trading popped onto my radar screen last week with the release of a yet another report on global climate change. Although the report declares, “The latest assessment by the world’s climate scientists indicates that the earth will warm by as much as 3 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century,” the “world’s scientists” continue to debate the severity of the issue or even if it is an issue.

The report’s release was timed with the start of a conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in The Hague, Netherlands. The United States has ratified the UNFCCC, but Congress has yet to ratify the related Kyoto Protocol of the UNFCCC. The Clinton administration signed the protocol in 1999, but some speculate Congress will not ratify the Kyoto obligations.

Specifically, the Kyoto Protocol binds the United States to a 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. Incidentally, the United States and other developed nations would agree to the greenhouse gas reductions, but developing nations are exempt.

Regardless, the gist of the report was that implementing climate change policies will benefit U.S. farmers. My quick read of the report says otherwise.

“If the Kyoto Protocol… were combined with the right set of domestic agricultural policies, net farm cash returns could actually increase,” report authors claim.

If the United States implements policies that give farmers economic incentives to reduce or capture emissions, then the returns could increase, they add.

Once again, I get to quote one of my husband’s favorite sayings: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas!”

If you thought carbon credits were going to be the savior of agriculture, make way for nitrogen trading – which was the program of choice for the new report. Now, the authors say, selling sequestered soil carbon would have relatively small cash returns for farmers (and for reducing greenhouse gas emissions).

Few farmers are likely to gain from carbon credits and even fewer are likely to gain from nitrogen trading. A nitrogen trading program would allow industrial and municipal wastewater dischargers to meet their legal environmental obligations by paying farmers to reduce their nitrogen loads.

The price of each pound of nitrogen lost to water by runoff or leaching is set at $1.

Let me see if I understand this correctly: A plant in the Northeast is releasing too much carbon into the air or too much nitrogen into a waterway, but if it pays a farmer in Iowa to use no-till practices and reduce his nitrogen load, it can continue to release too much carbon into the air or too much nitrogen into a waterway?

How does that truly help the environment? And who do you really think is going to profit? The large industrial plant – a point source polluter – with its cadre of attorneys, the farmer, or the middleman who brokers the deal. I can tell you who probably will not.

The U.S. EPA is already encouraging states to develop nutrient trading programs for water quality benefits, although for different reasons than the report champions.

I am increasingly skeptical as to the actual extent of the problem – since the scientific community itself has debated the greenhouse theory for probably 40 years. In 1996, for example, scientists participating in the peer review of The Science of Climate Change report said,

* “None of the studies… has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific causes of increases in greenhouse gases;” and

* “No study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic [manmade] causes.”

Farmers should incorporate Best Management Practices and implement manure nutrient management and conservation plans because it makes good environmental and economic sense. Sure, it would be nice if that power plant paid us a credit to do so, but to shoulder greater responsibilities and costs so someone else can avoid adopting technologies to reduce their own emissions makes no sense at all.


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