Perspective: Towards Modeling Farms as Carbon Sinks — The Economics, the Science, and the Art

In the Perspectives guest blog series, Farm Foundation invites participants from among the varied Farm Foundation programs to share their unique viewpoint on a topic relevant to a Farm Foundation focus area. This guest blog was contributed by Noé J Nava, Research Agricultural Economist for the Agricultural Policy and Models Branch in the Market and Trade Economics Division at ERS, and Sarah Sellars, a PhD student studying agricultural and applied economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nava and Sellars were 2021 Agricultural Scholars.

On September 21 and 22, Farm Foundation convened a group of experts in Atlanta, Georgia, to examine modeling approaches to assess the size of the US and global land-based carbon sinks, and the costs of accessing those sinks. Modelers were invited to present their latest methods and research findings at the USDA Carbon Sinks Meeting. A special issue of the Carbon Balance and Management journal will be developed for authors to publish their papers. Funding for the event was provided by USDA Economic Research Service. Nava and Sellars attended the conference.

The USDA Carbon Sinks Modeling Meeting showcased the mathematical modeling capabilities of researchers across the whole scientific spectrum to achieve a common goal: Using farms as carbon sinks to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. At the meeting, economists showcased how governments can create market incentives to nudge farmers into shifting their land uses towards environmentally friendly uses, as long as the price is right. Climate modelers discussed their advances in climate scenario forecasting such that we can learn where the best opportunities are, using state-of-the-art techniques to understand how emissions affect climate scenarios and provided us with accurate climate outlooks. This provided important insight to determine both if we are making improvements in carbon sequestration and where carbon sequestration must take place to have the highest potential.

The success of these efforts requires the support and understanding of farmers. To create connections between individual farmers and the scientific community, the extension community has created educational materials for farmers on the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of their land use decisions. Land allocation decisions, for instance, are a reflection of both market incentives (i.e., expected returns) and an elaborated government structure of subsidies. USDA representatives discussed how government officials employ their models to determine how and why a policy incentive will nudge economic agents into making decisions that are not only beneficial for the individual, but for the whole society.

Soon, it should be possible to put together the first model that incorporates the economics, the science, and the art of farms as carbon sinks.

Nevertheless, there remains work to be done in these efforts. It is not enough to say that as long as the price is right, farmers will shift land uses. While economists are able to model markets and infer the effect of public policies for their economic agents, few efforts are in place to use climate scenarios and atmospheric scientists’ understanding of droughts and floods in their models beyond “the causal effect of X on Y.” Similarly, the extension community has educated farmers on the profit potential of adopting government-sponsored programs, but how can the data modeling community make sure farmers understand that a climate scenario is something that is not part of a distant future?

Soon, it should be possible to put together the first model that incorporates the economics, the science, and the art of farms as carbon sinks. This meeting demonstrated that the tools exist to do this individually. The modeling community should be able to model economic incentives, climate, and the perception of climate, all together.

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