The USDA’s new proposal aims to address gaps in GHG flux data, and while it largely succeeds, we still see areas for improvement for forest and wood product data.
Getting national greenhouse gas (GHG) flux data right is important. As we move toward net zero in the U.S., tracking robust data can hold the country accountable, prove the climate benefits of a business, and enable consumers to make educated choices. Until now, the data USDA has been using was cobbled together from a variety of sources, each one originally designed for a different use. USDA’s new proposal is offering some solutions, with comments open to stakeholders through August 11, 2023.
While EDF has provided a nice summary here, the quick take is: USDA will dedicate $300 million to improve its monitoring, measuring, reporting, and verification (MMRV) of GHG fluxes, and forests and soil carbon are included as important pillars of the proposal.
We took a look, and here are five key takeaways that stakeholders in the forest and wood products sector can consider as they respond to USDA’s request for information (RFI).
1. USDA’s proposal fills important gaps…but it should ensure consistent measurement across land use types.
USDA is making a major investment to fill several important data gaps. The announcement lays out a systematic approach to filling gaps across five focus areas: 1) science and research; 2) models, methods, and tools; 3) data and data products; 4) monitoring and verification; and 5) reports and analysis.
The biggest gap it aims to fill on the forestry side is the measurement of soil carbon, which is an evolving area of study and accounts for over 50% of the carbon stored in the forest.
USDA should make sure forestry, grassland, cropland, and livestock soil data collection approaches are aligned, even as it conducts separate projects in some of these areas.
2. It would increase data collection and frequency…which is good
USDA proposes increasing the amount of data collected and/or the frequency at which data is collected. Its efforts could make immediate impacts in the speed of developing emissions estimates from wildfires, the understanding of urban forestry, and delivering on its commitment to develop small area estimation techniques. Progress in these three areas would all be high value.
USDA needs to have a better sense of which end users it is targeting with this proposal. Knowing who these users are will shape how the data is gathered, presented, and reported.
3. It embraces new technology…but also needs to make a long-term commitment
This proposal relies heavily on remote sensing and lays out plans for refining the capability. Remote sensing has huge potential because it can cover large areas and provide high degrees of precision – but it also has its challenges.
One of the biggest concerns in remote sensing is the reliance on short-term pilot projects like NASA’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI). Since these projects are short-term, they have firm end dates and it is difficult to replicate their methodology over longer periods of time. By contrast, the Forest Inventory and Analysis program at the USFS dates back to 1930 and provides data sets that allow for more expansive and accurate analysis.
USDA should add remote sensing as a regular programmatic element in addition to conducting the pilot projects already included in this proposal.
4. It waits to define climate smart forestry…and that’s smart
Funding will be used to “accelerate the adoption of applications and tools that support climate smart agriculture and forestry,” according to the document. However, the proposal stays mum on what USDA considers climate smart forestry to be – which comes as no surprise, since comments on an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on the topic just closed. We also know there is still a gap between “climate smart forestry” as a policy idea and “climate smart forestry” as a concept backed by science.
USDA should keep its focus on the quality and utility of the MMRV tools it is laying out here. It could end up being distracted if it tries to get these tools to address a concept like “climate smart forestry,” while the concept still lacks a consensus definition.
5. The proposal is promising…but who is it for?
USDA needs to have a better sense of which end users it is targeting with this proposal. Knowing who these users are will shape how the data is gathered, presented, and reported. Right now, much of the research in the proposal is geared toward meeting the U.S. Government’s specific domestic and international reporting obligations. Beyond that, the value proposition is less clear for other stakeholders, aside from brief mentions of “underpinning private carbon markets with credible information” and lifecycle analyses.
The bottom line
Dedicating $300 million to improve USDA’s monitoring, measuring, reporting, and verification (MMRV) of GHG fluxes is a valuable and important step forward, and shows promise in its applicability to the forest and wood products sector. That being said, it would behoove stakeholders to ensure the proposal meets the needs of the use cases they have for the new USDA data.