Climate, Land Protection

Can California’s protected farmland fight climate change?

October 16, 2019

In the past year, the threat of climate change has risen to the forefront of public consciousness.

With this growing awareness, many solutions are being offered to avert this crisis — from planting millions of trees to innovating electric car technology to passing state legislation to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One powerful tool to address climate change is putting in action land use planning policies that preserve working farms and ranches.

The impacts of the loss of farmland in California

Farmland is disappearing across America. We are losing family farms and ranches at a rate of 175 acres every hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. California, despite its progressive politics, is not immune to this threat to farmland, especially as the affordable housing crisis increases pressure for residential development.

California is the nation’s most productive agricultural state, growing one-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. However, over the past three decades, California has lost approximately 50,000 acres of farmland every year.

When examining the loss of farmland, most MALT supporters have a strong understanding of how it impacts wildlife habitat, food security, the rural economy and communities.

What many people do not realize is that certain types of land uses increase greenhouse gas emissions and, importantly, that policies that protect farmland can reduce future GHG emissions.

The link between climate change and land use

In 2012, UC Davis researchers released a study examining GHG emissions for different types of land use. The study found that GHG emissions for urban lands in Yolo County were 70 times greater than for irrigated cropland. This study showed that protecting working agricultural lands — rather than converting them to urban use — can reduce potential climate changing emissions. This reduction is largely a result of eliminating future increased emissions from decentralized urban development including transportation associated with it.

Since agricultural land at the edge of urban areas is at the greatest risk of conversion to urban development, it is at this urban edge where the greatest climate gains can be made.

Policies and programs that protect farmland, such as strong urban growth boundaries and funding for agricultural conservation easements, can play a key role in state efforts to reduce climate change emissions.

California invests in farmland conservation as strategy to combat climate change

Prior to 2015, California funded agricultural land conservation through a variety of federal, state and local funding mechanisms. In all, between 1994 and 2014, California spent approximately $85 million (about $4 million per year) towards purchasing conservation easements to protect working agricultural lands from development.

In 2015, everything changed.

That year California launched the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) Program, which is a competitive grants program that primarily funds agricultural conservation easements. This is the first program in the country to invest in farmland conservation as a strategy to avoid future GHG emissions associated with transportation and urban development. Money for this program comes from California’s Cap-and-Trade Program which sets a limit on most emissions and creates a market for companies to buy and sell emission allowances.

Here at MALT, we know that SALC is a game changer. Since its inception in 2015, SALC has provided approximately $40 million per year to fund farmland protection — 10 times the amount the state previously invested per year.                        

As of January 2019, 60 easements had been funded, 90,000 acres protected and 47 million metric tons of CO2 over thirty years were avoided — equivalent to removing almost 10 million cars from the road for one year.

For each of the projects SALC has funded, nine factors were used to determine the risk of converting the land to urban use. For every agricultural conservation easement funded through SALC, the emissions that were being avoided by keeping the property in agricultural use were carefully calculated and quantified.                              

MALT-protected lands play a role in fighting climate change

Protecting farmland as a strategy to combat climate change is not limited to state action.

MALT has been successfully leveraging private donations and public funding to protect 86 family farms and more than 54,000 acres over the past four decades. In addition to the SALC program, funds from the California Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and Marin County’s Measure A have been instrumental in recent years in increasing MALT’s pace of agricultural land protection.

We are proud of our ongoing work to protect agricultural land for farming, for food, for wildlife and for community. We are also proud to be a part of the movement to implement long-term climate change solutions.