On November 23, the Trump Administration released the fourth National Climate Assessment, which is compiled by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the work of 13 federal agencies. A comprehensive scientific review of 1,500 peer-reviewed studies of the impacts of climate change on a regional basis in the United States, the report confirms what is already well understood in the scientific community – unless swift action is taken on climate change, the results will be disastrous to those who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods, including agriculture, forestry, as well as the bioeconomy.
The report outlines how the effects of climate, which are already being felt, will intensify and worsen if action is not taken in the next decade. In early October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that in 12 years, dramatic shifts in climate and weather patterns will begin to occur, under a “business as usual” scenario.
While the U.S. currently enjoys highly productive agricultural and forestry sectors, these sectors are particularly susceptible to climate impacts that will eventually reduce health of both sectors and ultimately negatively impact productivity. Impacts to natural resources that we can expect to see further intensify by end-of-century include increased drought and wildfire conditions, higher temperatures, more frequent extreme precipitation events which will degrade soil and water, shifts in production areas and decreased health in livestock due to changes in temperature.
While the report notes that the U.S. agriculture and forestry sector has begun to develop strategies for climate adaptation, including management strategies (ranging from precision nutrient management to agro-forestry and forest management) and biotechnology, if global emissions are not reduced swiftly, natural resource economies will not be able to keep up with the expected pace of temperature changes by mid-century.
By 2050, under a “business as usual” scenario, food security and rural economies will be increasingly threatened. While technological advances, such as genetically engineered crops and other scientific breakthroughs have helped U.S. farmers continually increase productivity over the past half-century, these gains will falter and eventually decline in the face of increasingly uncertain climate and weather patterns.
In the forestry sector, by the end of the century, wildfire season could stretch to nearly year-round in much of the West, and forests will be subjected to “severe ecological disturbances” due to their inability to quickly adapt to the rapid changes occurring. In addition to reducing forests’ ability to provide wood products, climate change will drastically reduce forests’ ability to provide ecosystem services, such as clean air, water, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage.
With regard to the bioeconomy – climate change is a double-edged sword. The use of sustainably grown and harvested biobased feedstocks can help mitigate climate change and recycle carbon, but growth of the sector would also be severely hindered by unchecked climate. The report makes special mention of the carbon storage potential of biochar, as well as the use of crop residues for biofuels and other biobased products, but also mentions that crop residues must be harvested sustainably, so as to not negatively impact soil carbon and greenhouse gases.
At the same time, both the IPCC and the International Energy Association (IEA), acknowledge the necessary role that biobased fuels, power, and chemicals will play in decarbonization, particularly for harder to decarbonize sectors, such as fuels, petrochemicals and heat. According to the IPCC’s most recent assessment, utilization of biofuels and biopower will likely depend on ‘right sizing’ biobased solutions for countries and regions, based on sustainable feedstocks and land management.
They also predict that bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration (BECSS) will be necessary to manage carbon in a 1.5 or 2 degree scenario. Near term areas where the bioeconomy can immediately help mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases include; long-lived wood products, such as cross-laminated timber, the use of waste-carbon from industrial processes for biofuels, the utilization of wastes and other low-carbon feedstocks for renewable fuels and power, and the creation of biochar from wood waste. Unfortunately, there are few policy mechanisms that are helping these alternatives compete with established carbon-intensive industries.
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