Health care has dominated the national debate in recent months, but as a resolution appears near, climate change is likely to again take center stage. The Obama administration is pressing Congress to develop a national greenhouse gas reduction strategy ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.

The House has already passed a bill requiring a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels within the next decade. A recently introduced draft Senate bill would raise those reduction requirements to 20 percent. Targeted greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane, along with a number of other compounds.

For those who live, work and own businesses in California, however, any proposed national policy is likely to be trumped by a more restrictive climate change plan already in process under California state law.

Passed by the state Legislature in 2006, AB32 requires California to reduce its carbon equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, back to 1990 levels, within the next 10 years. This is an enormous challenge, and one that will impact every aspect of life in our fossil-fuel-dependent society; from how we drive to work, to the way we get electricity, heat and cool our homes, transport goods, and grow and process our agricultural products.

These changes in California are not 10 to 20 years away, but will start in the next year or two as the agency charged with mapping out California’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy begins instituting a cap and trade program on carbon emissions in 2012.

The State Air Resources Board (ARB) late last year approved a scoping plan that includes a whole range of regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years. The implementation on many of these strategies will begin to come up quickly. Near-term examples include requiring trucks to become more aerodynamic and reducing emissions from certain refrigerants. To see a list of measures and timelines in the scoping plan visit the ARB Web site at http://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/scopingplan/sp_measures_implementation_timeline.pdf.

A cap and trade system for carbon emissions remains a cornerstone of the ARB plan. Under cap and trade, ARB limits total emissions for a number of economic sectors and operations within that sector are allocated a certain number of emissions credits. Those that can afford technologies or efficiencies to reduce their emissions beyond what is required can sell their excess emissions credits to those for whom it is not possible or economically feasible to implement changes that will get the necessary reductions.

The bottom line of this cap and trade system for California agriculture will be a cost increase for petroleum-based energy and products. This price hike will affect how much growers pay for tractor fuel, electricity or diesel for irrigation pumps, fertilizers, pesticides, drip tape and a host of other inputs.

National agriculture officials have touted potential benefits to agriculture under a federal cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Cap and Trade Legislation this summer, said carbon offset markets could reward agriculture for stewardship activities. Offset is the term used for voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in economic sectors that are not under a cap on emissions.

While no-till corn and soybeans in the Midwest may benefit from offsets under a cap and trade system, it is difficult to see how specialty crop growers in California might come out ahead.

There are stark differences in how specialty crops are produced compared to the expansive acres of farming in the Midwest. For instance, many vegetable crops are not compatible with no-till options. Every time the soil is tilled, for instance, microbes in the soil consume organic matter and convert it to CO2. And specialty crops, as noted above, can be highly fossil-fuel intensive to produce, prepare and maintain for consumption.

Beyond the field’s edge, hulling/shelling and processing facilities all require energy to operate and will also see operating costs increase if they rely on traditional fossil-fuel-derived energy.

Given the lack of knowledge about greenhouse gas emissions/sequestration for specialty crops – and for perennial crops in particular – the almond industry is working to develop almond-specific data with research related to greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in almond production. Almond growers, through the Almond Board of California, have funded multi-year research in this area, and additional state grants to researchers are supplementing this work.

One project is focused on developing better data on the emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O). Thanks to this research, we now have two years of data on nitrous oxide emissions in almond orchards. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 and ARB had suggested reductions in fertilizer use as an opportunity for reducing N2O greenhouse gas emissions.

This crop-specific data is important because the ARB models for California permanent crops have used data for annual crops in the Midwest to generate assumed emissions. This new data indicates that actual N2O emissions in almonds are less than those models had indicated.

Additional research is also attempting to give the almond industry a better understanding of how carbon is sequestered in the tree and whether growers might be positioned to get carbon credits for growing almond trees. Forestry and urban trees are eligible for credits, but agricultural trees are not. Results of this research are still a year or two away, but it will be important in determining if growers can benefit from a carbon cap and trade system.

This research is important with national climate change legislation under consideration, but even more critical as state agencies implement the sweeping greenhouse gas reform that is already under way in California.

Go to almondboard.com/farmpress1 for more information and resources on air quality.