Climate Change Challenges and Solutions in Forestry & Agriculture

Climate change is already impacting agriculture and forestry production in the U.S. However, these sectors also hold the key to adaptation and mitigation. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is at the forefront of addressing these challenges and developing solutions. Understanding the implications of climate change in agriculture and forestry is crucial for our nation to forge ahead with effective strategies and outcomes, ensuring our food and shelter resources remain secure.

Currently, the atmosphere contains more key greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxides, carbon dioxide, methane) than ever in history thanks to human activities. Industrial, agricultural, and deforestation practices add to the abundance of these critical gasses that are warming our planet. This has become more noticeable through more frequent severe weather and natural disasters with record heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, and rainfall. In 2023, global climate records of temperatures were broken and hit the highest in the last 174 years. Ocean temperatures are reaching record levels, along with major melts in ice sheets. All these changes will affect forestry and agriculture in profound ways. Crop damaging insects and diseases, along with other stresses caused by extreme changes, will also have cascading effects.

Adjustments or adaptations in response to climate change have progressed globally, with planning and implementation across multiple sectors and regions. While much attention is being paid to reforestation and reducing deforestation, gaps still exist and will need continued attention and financial input to address current and future challenges. Agriculture and forestry are two sectors worth exploring as they can open up climate adaptation and mitigation solutions that have positive cascading benefits across regions.

Challenges in the Agriculture and Forestry Sector

Agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through several activities, such as burning crop residues, soil management and fertilization, animal manure management, and rice cultivation. In addition, agriculture requires significant amounts of energy for vehicles, tractors, harvest, and irrigation equipment. Agriculture involves complex systems that include inputs of fertilizers and chemicals, management decisions, social factors, and interactions between climate and soil.

Most agriculture operations need fertilizers to produce goods, but the management and specific use of fertilizers need further focus. According to the Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, agriculture contributes 9.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to climate change because many operations are exposed to climatic changes in the natural landscape. There has been widespread economic damage in agriculture due to climate change. Individuals and farms have been affected by flooding, tornadoes, extreme wildfires, droughts, and excessive rains. Loss of property and income, human health, and food security is real for agriculture producers. Adverse impacts will continue to be felt in agricultural systems, particularly in crop production, water availability, animal health, and pests and diseases.

Forestry is a major industry in the U.S. and plays a key role in regulating the climate by transferring carbon within ecosystems and the atmosphere.. Forests remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it in trees and soils. Forestry has seen a decline in the last few decades due to development and cropland expansion. The decline in forestry acres affects essential services such as air purification, regulating water quantity and quality, wood products for shelter, outdoor recreation, medicines, and wildlife habitat. Many Indigenous people and Tribal Nations depend on forest ecosystems for food, timber, culture, and traditions. Effective forest management is crucial for human well-being and is influenced by social and economic factors.

Land cover types and distribution of the United States. Forest lands have decreased in the last two decades. (Source: Fifth National Climate Assessment)

Forests are affected by climate change on local or regional levels based on climate conditions such as rainfall and temperature. The West has been significantly affected, with higher temperatures and drought leading to more wildfires. Higher temperatures come with higher evaporation rates, leading to drier forests that are susceptible to fires. The greater amount of dry wood causes extensive fires that burn more intensely. Fire activity is projected to increase with further warming and less rain. Since 1990, these extensive fires have produced greater greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Other regions of the country with forests that typically receive more rain, like the southeast and northeast, are challenging to predict fire hazards. Other climate change effects include insects, diseases, and invasive species, which change forest ecosystems’ growth, death, and regeneration. Various degrees of disruption can impact a forest’s dynamics.

Current Adaptation Approaches in Agriculture and Forestry

Since agriculture’s largest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture soil management, emphasis is being placed on reducing emissions from this process. Farmers are tilling less and using cover crops to keep the ground covered, which helps soils perform the important function of carbon storage. These techniques can also help lower soil temperatures and conserve moisture. In addition, those working in the agriculture sector are taking measures to adapt to the changing climate by developing crops that can withstand higher temperatures and water stress. Ecosystem-based solutions such as wetland restoration to reduce flooding have also been effective. Another potential solution is agroforestry, in which trees are planted, and other agricultural products are grown between the trees or livestock is grazed within a forestry system. This system provides shade to the animals and enhances biodiversity. It protects water bodies by keeping the soil covered with vegetation throughout the year. The perennial vegetation also stores carbon in above-ground vegetation and below-ground roots.

In the forestry space, land managers and owners are developing plans to adapt to climate challenges by building adaptations in key areas such as relationships and connections of land stewardship, research teamwork, and education curriculum. Several guides, assessments, and frameworks have been designed to help private forest owners, Tribal lands, and federally managed forests. Tribal adaptation plans also include Tribal values and cultural considerations for forests. The coasts will be adapting to more frequent flooding, and relocation of recreation areas in vulnerable areas is being planned. In major forestry production areas in the West, forestry agencies are developing plans for prescribed burning to keep dead wood lower, eliminate invasive species, and enable fire-adapted ecosystems to thrive, all while reducing severe wildfires. Thinning forests and fuel removal also help with reducing wildfire risk.      

While both sectors have made progress in quickly adjusting their practices, much more needs to be done to ensure that land managers and affected communities are better prepared for both the short-term and long-term effects of climate change. The federal government, through USDA, can drive adaptation efforts to help these communities.

Current Policy

The USDA created the Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan in response to Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which requires all federal agencies to develop climate adaptation plans in all public service aspects, including management, operations, missions, and programs. 

The adaptation plan focuses on key threats to agriculture and forestry, such as:

Many USDA agencies have developed actions to address the impacts of climate change in different mission areas of USDA. These adaptation plans provide information for farmers, ranchers, forest owners, rural communities, trade and foreign affairs on ways to address the impact of climate change that affects them the most. For example, farm and ranch managers can use COMET Farm, a user-friendly online tool co-developed by Colorado State University and USDA that helps compare land management practices and account for carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

USDA has invested $3.1 billion in Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, encompassing 141 projects that involve small and underserved producers. The diverse projects are matched financially with non-federal funds and include over 20 tribal projects, 100 universities, including 30 minority-serving institutions, and others. The goals of the federal and private sector funding include:

The USDA Forest Service has also developed its own Climate Adaptation Plan that comprehensively incorporates climate adaptation into its mission and operations. The Forest Service has cultivated partnerships with the Northwest Climate Hub, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, University of Washington, and the Climate Impacts Group to develop tools and data to help with decision-making, evaluations, and developing plans for implementation. One notable example is the Sustainability and Climate website, which provides information on adaptation, vulnerability assessments, carbon, and other aspects of land management. 


While sustained government incentives can help drive adaptation efforts, it is important for everyone to play a role in adapting to climate change, especially in the agriculture and forestry sectors. Purchasing products that are grown sustainably and in climate-smart ways will help protect natural resources and support these communities. Understanding the significance of resilience against climate changes and disruptions is crucial, both in the short and long term. These challenges require collaborators to work together to creatively solve problems in addressing greenhouse gas contributions. Climate models can help solve complex problems and test different scenarios and solutions. As the Fifth National Climate Assessment of the United States notes, greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, global warming is on the rise, and climate change is currently happening. The choices we make now can have a significant impact on our future.

The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

Soil and Water: Why We Need Conservation Agriculture 

On May 1, 2023, a devastating dust storm  – the result of severe wind erosion –  propelled soil across highway I-55, causing numerous accidents, injuries, and loss of life. The factors that led to this erosion event were excessive tillage, exposed soils, and windy conditions. In response, the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation published an article proposing a “Soil Health Act,” to improve conservation agriculture policy.  

Most erosion is a direct result of human activities, such as leaving the soil bare for extended periods and excessive tillage in agricultural fields. Extreme weather events exacerbate soil erosion, with large wind erosion events damaging crops and causing air pollution in nearby communities. Water erosion can strip productive topsoil from cropland, reducing crop productivity and depositing sediment in water bodies. The Fifth National Climate Assessment further confirms that extreme weather is on the rise.

The United States boasts some of the most productive soils globally, particularly in the Midwest region, known as the corn belt. This vast expanse of farmland, which drains into the Mississippi River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico, is a crucial part of our country’s agricultural landscape. However, this network of soil and water, while offering significant benefits, also poses significant challenges if not properly cared for.

Map of U.S. major agriculture cropland areas in dark green. These regions also have highly productive soils. The Midwest soils of Iowa, southern Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, southern Wisconsin, and Ohio are globally significant breadbasket soils. (Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017).

Wind erosion in the left photo is active in many regions of the country, leading to poor soil conditions for agricultural production. Water erosion takes productive topsoil and applied fertilizers and chemical products used off cropland as it heads toward streams. (Source: Jodie McVane (left) and Rodale Institute (right))

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other products can enter water sources through two primary pathways: soil and chemical losses. Chemical losses can contaminate groundwater by moving down through the soil profile. Contaminated groundwater flows into private and public water supply wells , with many wells having high nitrate levels from commercial fertilizers and animal applications of manure. Nitrates can pose health risks to infants, cause toxic anemia, and how red blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells and tissues. In adults, reproductive health issues and certain cancers are also possible. And it’s not just nitrates: Atrazine, a common chemical used to control weeds, is found in many drinking wells across the U.S.

When soil erodes it takes nitrates, atrazine, and other contaminants away from land surfaces and into surface waterways, leading to water quality problems and soil sediment pollution. Many land managers try to avoid creating runoff, but agricultural practices leaving soils exposed with no plant residues and erosive storms make this a common occurrence. Soil erosion impacts can also be experienced as sedimentation and murky waters in recreational water bodies, roads covered with mud, and dirty snow covered with wind-blown soils, all of which affect everyday life and are undesirable for fish and plants. The lack of soil protection during the non-crop growing season in the U.S. has caused soil erosion and degradation of precious resources, diminishing the ability to grow food, fiber, and wood and provide clean water. Thus, erosion affects long-term production and economic viability for farms.

Protecting Our Soils Through Conservation Agriculture

Fortunately, we can find solutions through conservation agriculture–a system of farming practices, which includes cover crops and reduced tillage, that protects soil and prevents both soil and chemical losses. Growing plants year-round can address soil loss by keeping the soil covered with plants known as cover crops like corn, soybean, and cotton. Others, like grasses, legumes, and forbs can be grown for seasonal cover. Reduced tillage from cover crops can be beneficial in several different ways:

They control erosion, build healthy soils, and improve water quality. Cover crops planted during these periods can scavenge unused fertilizers from the previous crop and prevent nutrients from reaching surface and groundwater systems. Reducing tillage or switching to no-till cropping systems can also increase soil structure and aid in water infiltration, helping water get into the soil instead of running off.

When soils have many soil organisms with a favorable habitat, they can break down chemical pollutants effectively before reaching groundwater. Cover crops can also play a vital role in absorbing nitrates or other contaminants. Studies have shown that cover crops can reduce nitrates by 48% before they reach subsurface waters. Reduced tillage can provide habitats for these organisms by reducing soil disturbance. 

Cover crops capture sunlight and use plants’ photosynthetic processes to capture carbon in plant shoots and root systems. Much carbon is stored in our soils through plant roots. When the plants die, their roots remain in the soil, keeping the carbon sequestered. Excessive tillage breaks soil structure and releases carbon. Reduced tillage and no-till cropping systems allow soils to better maintain their carbon content.

Diverse cover crop species can be mixed, which leads to the diversification of plant roots and above-ground biomass. Furthermore, diversity above ground also means diversity below ground for soil organisms. Grasses can also be utilized alone to effectively suppress weeds and protect against erosion. Cover crops can capture carbon and increase carbon storage in soils, so planting cover crops yearly is important. (Source: Jodie McVane)

Federal and State Government Incentives to Expand Conservation Agricultural Practices     

Overall, cover crop use is low in the United States and varies depending on established social norms, soils, climate, primary crops, outreach programs, and conservation technical assistance. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, cover crop use increased from 3.4% of U.S. cropland in 2012 to 5.1% in 2017. The increase is positive, but millions of cropland acres can still benefit from applying cover crops and reduced tillage. While the use of conservation agriculture is an individual land manager’s choice and overall cover crop remains low, the USDA report notes that there has been some progress and positive trends. Continued incentives from both federal and state governments will be crucial to encourage wide adoption of conservation agricultural practices. 

Many USDA programs provide cost-sharing incentives to farmers who voluntarily encourage using cover crops, reducing tillage, planting grasslands, and diversifying crop rotations. The Farm Bill provides funding to assist farmers through the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). In addition to the Farm Bill, the Inflation Reduction Act provided additional funds to USDA-NRCS through these same programs to promote Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry Mitigation activities. The Inflation Reduction Act makes nearly $20 billion additional dollars available over five years for these programs. Current federal policy allows these programs to fund conservation practices for 3-5 years on a typical farm. Some states are also leading in incentivizing land managers to apply cover crops. States providing monetary incentives include Maryland, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia.

A mix of cover crops of grasses and broadleaves in the fall after a corn crop in the Midwest. (left photo) A cereal ryegrass cover crop holds the soil in place with fibrous root systems and protects the soil surface from water or wind erosion while suppressing weeds. (right photo) (Source: Jodie McVane)

Current Gaps and Proposed Policies

We will need lasting policies and sustainable funding  to ensure the long-term adoption of conservation agricultural practices. Current voluntary conservation programs only provide funding for a 5-year period, which does not guarantee that farmers will permanently transition to conservation agriculture practices.

The federal government should incentivize the adoption of soil health practices and conservation agriculture widely across the United States in three ways:     

Fund organizations that can provide educational events for farmers, consultants, policy groups, and consumers. These organizations are valuable and promote farmer-led education and peer-to-peer mentoring. Farmers enjoy learning from other farmers along with research experts.

Reward farmers who adopt conservation agriculture systems by providing long-term payments for continued use of conservation practices. Farmers who adopt these practices would benefit from their ecosystem services, such as building soil carbon, improving water quality, maintaining stable soil structure, and increasing water infiltration, which could significantly impact the health of our cropland acres.

Provide a reduction-based premium discount in the Federal Crop Insurance program for agricultural commodity producers that use risk-reduction farming practices, including cover crops. A discount on the insurance premium can have a lasting effect and provide a continued financial incentive to perform conservation on farms. 

Soil is the foundation of our national health, providing food, homes, fibers, and the structural foundations for everyday life. Soils filter water for clean drinking, safe fishing, and other recreational activities, enabling our farms, factories, homes, schools, universities, and state and federal governments to access clean water; the widespread adoption of conservation agricultural practices to protect soils is key to ensuring food security for current and future generations in the United States. Healthy soils can protect not only our national treasure but also our national security and ability to care for our citizens. 

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Imagine driving around the country and seeing continuous vegetation growing, protecting soils, capturing carbon, and protecting our water resources. It would be a different landscape in our nation and, over the years, could improve the culture of agriculture.

The Federation of American Scientists values diversity of thought and believes that a range of perspectives — informed by evidence — is essential for discourse on scientific and societal issues. Contributors allow us to foster a broader and more inclusive conversation. We encourage constructive discussion around the topics we care about.

Climate-Smart Cattle: US Research and Development Will Improve Animal Productivity, Address Greenhouse Gases, and Hasten Additional Market Solutions


Cattle in the United States release the greenhouse gas methane (known as “enteric methane”) from their digestive systems, which is equivalent to the amount of methane that leaks from fossil fuel infrastructure. Addressing enteric methane in cattle represents an opportunity to reduce the U.S. greenhouse gas footprint by 3% and simultaneously improve cattle productivity by ~6%. However, current solutions only address, at most, 10% of these emissions, and the U.S. has spent under $5m per year on R&D over the past five years to address this critical climate area. 

Pie chart showing how much of the current focus of methane reduction in cattle is focused on cows on feed over grazing cows.

Therefore, to establish long-term U.S. leadership and export competitiveness, we recommend regulatory simplification and an $82m per year U.S. Department of Agriculture research and innovation program. These common-sense recommendations would create a win for producers and a win for the environment by advancing solutions that easily drop into existing farm practices and convert avoided methane into increased milk and meat production.

Challenge & Opportunity

Cattle and other ruminants digest their food via anaerobic (oxygen-free) fermentation. This unique system allows them to digest roughage such as grasses and other forage and transform it into meat and milk. But it also generates methane. Cattle release on average 6% of the calories they eat as methane, a substantial loss in their potential meat and milk productivity. This methane is in addition to the methane emitted by their manure. 

An invisible and odorless gas, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for 0.5°C of the 1°C of modern global warming (based on the 2010-2019 average). One-third of U.S. anthropogenic methane emissions come from cattle and other ruminants. Solutions may be able to be developed that both disrupt enteric methane production while also increasing cattle productivity. That would help reduce global temperatures and provide benefits for both producers and consumers. Currently, there are a few tested and marketable solutions that use chemicals to disrupt methane-creating microbes in the cattle’s first stomach (the rumen). These are important solutions that need to be evaluated for regulatory approval. However, additional research and development must also be done, to help address the majority of emissions that don’t yet have available solutions, particularly from cattle grazing in pastures. Additional work is also needed to continue developing solutions that consistently lead to a productivity benefit. Focused scientific research could deepen our understanding of cattle metabolism, and advance new solutions for reducing enteric methane further.

Progress on this front also requires improved research tools to measure how much methane cattle emit and relate these methane emissions to their productivity and intake of feed and forage. Access to such research tools enables researchers and innovators to develop and evaluate new solutions. Methane emissions rates vary widely between cattle on the same farm of the same breed, as well as across breeds. Currently these tools are expensive and not widely available. For example, the primary tool available measures twenty cattle per day, costs ~$100,000, and can be found at only a handful of research institutions. That presents a practical problem of access not only for producers but also for non-specialist scientific innovators. Making those tools more accessible, for example via fee-for-service centers at leading U.S. Land Grant institutes, would make them more affordable for producers and researchers. That would help unlock the creativity of U.S. innovators, and provide evidence that their solutions have a positive climate impact and are feasible for producers and acceptable to consumers.

Even when new solutions are found and proven, innovators still face a 10-year FDA approval process. This is uncompetitive and restrictive compared to other countries. Since much faster approval is possible in Australia, Brazil, and Europe, innovators have an incentive to launch their products and build their businesses there rather than in the USA. And as climate-aware export markets develop, slow FDA approval will cost U.S. producers market share and market opportunity. We therefore recommend that the FDA be given authority and direction to evaluate new methane-reducing products for safety on an accelerated timeline, while maintaining critical human and animal safety standards. This would help the U.S. position itself as a global leader in a potential multi-billion dollar market while upholding its climate commitments.

Minimizing peak temperatures requires livestock enteric methane research today.

Plan of Action


Total Funds Needed: $50,000,000 per year 

Developing science-based, effective livestock enteric methane solutions depend on a detailed understanding of cattle microbiology as well as practical understanding of what makes solutions easy to adopt. These solutions have the potential to not only decrease enteric methane emissions but could unlock a new frontier of efficiency for the U.S. livestock sector, helping build a more resilient and productive food system. Increasing funding for basic and applied research could accelerate development of new methods, and rapidly build a portfolio of scalable potential solutions. Capacity funding will increase the near- and long-term throughput for solution development and shorten the idea to market timeline for these products. Competitive funding will drive innovation in sectors and geographies that have significant implementation barriers, such as those applicable to pasture operations, and can accelerate adoption of proven solutions. The Committee on Appropriations, has recognized the innovation potential increased public funds can make possible, and has encouraged USDA-NIFA to prioritize advancement of enteric fermentation solutions.  

We recommend competitive and capacity funding within USDA-NIFA, including AFRI, Hatch, Animal Health and Disease, and other programs be appropriated to:

Basic research in livestock methane microbiology to create a knowledge base that will support development of new win-win solutions and accelerate our understanding of host-microbiome interactions.

Applied livestock methane solutions research based on livestock methane biology knowledge. This work should prioritize solutions that reduce methane in new ways; that simultaneously increase the production of milk or meat; and that have the potential to be in a long-duration (e.g. once per year) product formulation compatible with grazing cattle. Such technology already exists for cattle nutrition and disease prevention.

Perform surveys and other social science research to understand barriers and opportunities to low-cost and low-complexity implementation for American producers and ranchers. This research will help guide the development of new solutions and tailor the design and deployment of solutions among the diversity of U.S. operations. Together, this will maximize the global market potential of U.S. innovation.   

We recommend Congress request of USDA a full-accounting and report of its current spending on enteric methane R&D across all its programs.

Cattle Enteric Methane ChallengesFunding & Policy Opportunity
U.S. risks losing global leadership on emissions, export markets, & productivity.Create knowledge, expertise, & research infrastructure for sustained leadership.
Current solutions don’t reduce all emissions and don’t consistently improve production.Fund basic & applied livestock methane research to create wins for producers and the environment.
Access to methane measurement equipment limits solution discovery and development.Create public fee-for-service testing facilities for livestock methane R&D.
Tools don’t exist for producers to affordably measure methane reductions.Fund development of low-cost cow methane measurement technology.
FDA approval for new solutions takes ten years, which is internationally noncompetitive.Support efforts to modernize the FDA, Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to facilitate rapid approval of climate-positive livestock. products
2/3 of enteric methane is from grazing cattle, which lack effective anti-methane solutions.Focus research and public-private partnerships on solutions that fit all cattle management practices.
Practices have upfront costs and producers may be slow to adopt new solutions.Include Enteric methane emissions as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).


Funds Needed: $15,000,000 per year

Access to methane test facilities, from the laboratory to the dairy barn, is a bottleneck. It limits how many innovative ideas for solutions can be tested. Only a small number of institutions worldwide have the tools needed to test methane, and outside access to those tools is limited. We recommend funding be authorized and appropriated for innovation-enabling research infrastructure to USDA-ARS through USDA Equipment Grants and USDA-AFRI. This funding would:

Authorize and establish a nationwide network of fee-for-access livestock methane research facilities. This equips the USDA-ARS laboratories with research measurement equipment and technical staff by partnering with U.S. land grant universities that already possess the necessary research cattle management expertise. Joint investment with them and partial support from research users will quickly make the U.S. an international leader in livestock methane research.

Develop a national center for pre-livestock testing and screening of potential products. This will serve as a user facility. Specialized cattle researchers shouldn’t be the only ones who can test new ideas for reducing livestock enteric methane. Accessible facilities can unlock innovation from the U.S.’ world-leading biology researchers. 

Livestock methane production is invisible: current livestock methane measurement equipment costs about $100,000 for a system that measures 20-30 cattle per day.


Funds needed: $15,000,000 per year

What is measured guides innovation and management, and what we measure easily and consistently, we improve. Producers measure milk production on every cow, every day, leading to a 300% productivity increase since 1950. But for all producers and most researchers, livestock methane production is invisible: current livestock methane measurement equipment costs about $100,000 for a system that measures 20-30 cattle per day. We recommend authorizing and appropriating $15 million per year to USDA-NIFA, Division of Animal Systems in order to:

Develop lower-cost measurement systems so every research barn can measure livestock methane. U.S. land grant universities have over ten thousand research cattle. Equipped with measurement systems, they could all provide livestock methane research data.

Develop farm-integrable measurement systems that make methane emissions and costs  visible to U.S. producers, enabling them to experiment and innovate. Methane is a loss for livestock production. If producers can see it, they’ll work to decrease methane and improve their bottom line.

A $15 million annual budget for this technology development will lead to rapid improvements. Part of this would fund interdisciplinary projects that bring engineers from across industry and livestock experts together. We recommend another part be framed as a grand challenge to achieve cost and performance targets connected to a government procurement market-shaping program.


Funds Needed: $2,000,000 per year

Current anti-methane feed additives are regulated as drugs, requiring a ten-year approval process. As European export markets increasingly regulate emissions, this may lead to a lack of competitiveness for U.S. products. To address this, Congress asked the FDA to review options to accelerate the approval of environmentally beneficial additives. One mechanism to shorten the regulatory timeframe of approval is to amend an existing approval pathway which exists for feed additives. Legislation has been introduced (Innovative Feed Enhancement and Economic Development Act of 2023) which would, in part, amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to include Zootechnical Animal Feed Substances as a category under the feed additive petition process. This could reduce the approval timeline for environmentally beneficial additives by 5-fold. 

We recommend Congress continue to support the modernization of the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and authorize and appropriate an additional $2 million per year to the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine, for personnel resources and infrastructure to robustly evaluate new anti-methane solutions for safety and efficacy and make new solutions available to farmers.


Funds Needed: No Additional Funding

In a recent survey, fewer than 30% of U.S. producers indicated they would be willing to adopt an enteric methane solution if they had to bear the cost. Government or other funding assistance was the second most important factor influencing the use of potential solutions behind increased productivity. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the flagship program administered by USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service and can provide financial assistance for the implementation of conservation practices, including practices that reduce greenhouse gasses. In order to promote the adoption of enteric methane mitigation solutions, we recommend USDA-NRCS:

Review conservation practice standards to include new enteric methane mitigation solutions when applicable and include mechanisms to incentivize established methods to reduce enteric methane (i.e. lipid supplementation). Encourage regular updating of practice standards to rapidly incorporate new solutions as they are approved for use, and train technical assistance providers on the implementation of enteric methane mitigation strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions
What would the climate impact be of developing anti-methane enteric solutions? How much might we reasonably expect anti-methane solutions to reduce enteric emissions?

Enteric methane is responsible for ~15% or 0.16℃ of current warming. Protein production from animal agriculture is expected to increase in the coming decades to meet increased capita and per capita consumption. Early research on methane mitigating feed additives have demonstrated enteric methane reductions up to 90% in animal trials. Technology nearing regulatory approval has demonstrated 20-30% reductions. However, these solutions aren’t yet applicable to grazing cattle. With increased research and deployment efforts, enteric methane mitigation can help meet future protein demand with fewer animals and reduce overall warming by more than 10%.

Why is reducing enteric emissions a priority through anti-methane solutions rather than just focusing on replacing cattle with plant-based milk and meat?
While consumer behavior and product availability may change over time, current projections indicate that livestock product demand and production will be substantial throughout the coming decades. Therefore, enteric methane mitigation remains a necessary and impactful strategy toward minimizing peak temperatures.
What anti-methane solutions to enteric emissions exist today? What stage are they at?

Today, no products are approved by the FDA to reduce enteric methane emissions. However, some nutritional approaches are effective, including feeding higher amounts of lipids in an animal’s diet, since lipids increase the calories available for the animal, but do not promote methane production. However, lipids can be expensive for producers and to ensure animal health, no more than a few percent of an animal’s diet can come from lipids.

Other products currently being investigated include chemicals and natural products like 3-NOP, seaweed, and even probiotics. While dietary modification for lipids and supplementation with feed additives show promise in feedlot and confined operation settings, none of the emerging solutions are applicable to grazing systems. Research areas of interest include developing breeding strategies for low methane producing animals, anti-methane vaccines, and novel delivery mechanisms for grazing animals.

How does this relate to manure emissions?

Methane emissions from manure are largely dependent on whether the manure is exposed to air (methane producing microbes are not productive in oxygen rich environments). Grazing animals for instance generate very little manure methane, because manure is deposited over large areas and is exposed to open air. In confined operations like large dairies, manure is often flushed with water or scraped into a holding pond before it is applied to fields as fertilizer. These liquid manure lagoons quickly become anaerobic (without oxygen) and are an ideal environment for methane producing microbes.

Some enteric methane mitigation compounds could in theory reduce manure lagoon emissions, however the compounds would have to survive the digestive tract of the animal. It is also possible that some compounds could decrease enteric emissions but increase manure emissions. While this has not been demonstrated, prudent experimentalists include this in research studies. Growing efforts to reduce the methane from large manure lagoons include covering the lagoon and capturing the renewable biogas for use as transportation fuel, or electricity production, or processing the manure to separate the solids from the liquids and composting the solids to reduce emissions.

Increasing National Resilience through an Open Disaster Data Initiative


Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies collect and maintain a range of disaster resilience, vulnerability, and loss data. However, this valuable data lives on different platforms and in various formats across agency silos. Inconsistent data collection and lack of validation can result in gaps and inefficiencies and make it difficult to implement appropriate mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, and adaptation measures for natural hazards, including wildfires, smoke, drought, extreme heat, flooding, and debris flow. Lack of complete data down to the granular level also makes it challenging to gauge the true cost of disasters.

The Biden-Harris Administration should launch an Open Disaster Data Initiative to mandate the development and implementation of national standards for disaster resilience, vulnerability, and loss data to enable federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies to regularly collect, validate, share, and report on disaster data in consistent and interoperable formats.

Challenge and Opportunity

Disaster resilience, vulnerability, and loss data are used in many life-saving missions, including early detection and local response coordination, disaster risk assessments, local and state hazard mitigation plans, facilitating insurance and payouts, enabling rebuilding and recovery, and empowering diverse communities to adapt to climate impacts in inclusive, equitable, and just ways. 

While a plethora of tools are being developed to enable better analytics and visualizations of disaster and climate data, including wildfire data, the quality and completeness of the data itself remains problematic, including in the recently released National Risk Index

This is because there is a lack of agency mandates, funding, capacity, and infrastructure for data collection, validation, sharing, and reporting in consistent and interoperable formats. Currently, only a few federal agencies have the mandate and funds from Congress to collect disaster data relevant to their mission. Further, this data does not necessarily integrate state and local data for non-federally declared disasters. 

Due to this lack of national disaster and climate data standards, federal and state agencies, universities, nonprofits, and insurers currently maintain disaster-related data in silos, making it difficult to link in productive and efficient ways down to the granular level. 

Also, only a few local, state, and federal agencies regularly budget for or track spending on disaster resilience, vulnerability, and response activities. As a result, local agencies, nonprofits, and households, particularly in underserved communities, often lack access to critical lifesaving data. Further, disaster loss data is often private and proprietary, leading to inequality in data access and usability. This leaves already disadvantaged communities unprepared and with only a limited understanding of the financial burden of disaster costs carried by taxpayers. 

Since the 1990s, several bipartisan reviewsresearchdata, and policy documents, including the recent President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report on modernizing wildland firefighting, have reiterated the need to develop national standards for the consistent collection and reporting of disaster vulnerability, damage, and loss data. Some efforts are under way to address the standardization and data gaps—such as the all-hazards dataset that created an open database by refining the Incident Command System data sets (ICS-209). 

However, significant work remains to integrate secondary and cascading disasters and monitor longitudinal climate impacts, especially on disadvantaged communities. For example, the National Interagency Fire Center consolidates major wildfire events but does not currently track secondary or cascading impacts, including smoke (see AirNow’s Fire and Smoke Map), nor does it monitor societal vulnerabilities and impacts such as on public health, displacement, poverty, and insurance. There are no standardized methods for accounting and tracking damaged or lost structures. For example, damage and loss data on structures, fatalities, community assets, and public infrastructure is not publicly available in a consolidated format

The Open Disaster Data Initiative will enable longitudinal monitoring of pre- and post-event data for multiple hazards, resulting in a better understanding of cascading climate impacts. Guided by the Open Government Initiative (2016), the Fifth National Action Plan (2022), and in the context of the Year of Open Science (2023), the Open Disaster Data Initiative will lead to greater accountability in how federal, state, and local governments prioritize funding, especially to underserved and marginalized communities. 

Finally, the Open Disaster Data Initiative will build on the Justice40 Initiative and be guided by the recommendations of the PCAST Report on Enhancing prediction and protecting communities. The Open Disaster Data Initiative should also reiterate the Government Accountability Office’s 2022 recommendation to Congress to designate a federal entity to develop and update climate information and to create a National Climate Information System


Recent disaster and wildfire research data platforms and standards provide some precedence and show how investing in data standards and interoperability can enable inclusive, equitable, and just disaster preparedness, response, and recovery outcomes.

The Open Disaster Data Initiative must build on lessons learned from past initiatives, including:

There are also important lessons to learn from international efforts  such as the United Nations’ ongoing work on monitoring implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) by creating the next generation of disaster loss and damage databases, and the Open Geospatial Consortium’s Disaster Pilot 2023 and Climate Resilience Pilot, which seek to use standards to enable open and interoperable sharing of critical geospatial data across missions and scales. 

Plan of Action

President Biden should launch an Open Disaster Data Initiative by implementing the following four actions.

Recommendation 1. Issue an Executive Order to direct the development and adoption of national standards for disaster resilience, vulnerability, and loss data collection, validation, sharing, and reporting, by all relevant federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies to create the enabling conditions for adoption by universities, non-profits, and the private sector. The scope of this Executive Order should include data on local disasters that do not call for a Presidential Disaster Declaration and federal assistance.

Recommendation 2. Direct the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to issue an Open Disaster Data Initiative Directive for all relevant federal agencies to collaboratively implement the following actions:

Recommendation 3. Designate a lead coordinator for the Open Disaster Data Initiative within the Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP), such as the Tech Team, to work with the OMB on developing a road map for implementing the Open Disaster Data Initiative, including developing the appropriate capacities across all of government.

Recommendation 4. Direct FEMA to direct appropriate funding and capacities for coordination with the National Weather Service (NWS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, and the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) to maintain a federated, open, integrated, and interoperable disaster data system that can seamlessly roll up local data, including research, nonprofit, and private, including insurance data. 

In addition, Congress should take the following three actions to ensure success of the Open Disaster Data Initiative:

Recommendation 5. Request the Government Accountability Office to undertake a Disaster Data Systems and Infrastructure Review to:

Recommendation 6. Appropriate dedicated funding for the implementation of the Open Disaster Data Initiative to allow federal agencies, states, nonprofits, and the private sector to access regular trainings and develop the necessary infrastructure and capacities to adopt national disaster data standards and collect, validate, and share relevant data. This access to training should facilitate seamless roll-up of disaster vulnerability and loss data to the federal level, thereby enabling accurate monitoring and accounting of community resilience in inclusive and equitable ways.

Recommendation 7. Use the congressional tool of technical corrections to support and enhance the Initiative:


The Open Disaster Data Initiative can help augment whole-of-nation disaster resilience in at least three ways: 

  1. Enable enhanced data sharing and information coordination among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies, as well as with universities, nonprofits, philanthropies, and the private sector.
  2. Allow for longitudinal monitoring of compounding and cascading disaster impacts on community well-being and ecosystem health, including a better understanding of how disasters impact poverty rates, housing trends, local economic development, and displacement and migration trends, particularly among disadvantaged communities.
  3. Inform the prioritization of policy and program investments for inclusive, equitable, and just disaster risk reduction outcomes, especially in socially and historically marginalized communities, including rural communities.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some of the gaps and weaknesses of current national disaster databases in the United States?

Recent analysis by a federal interagency effort, Science for Disaster Reduction, shows that national-level databases significantly underreport disaster losses due to an overreliance on public sources and exclusion (or inaccessibility) of loss information from commercial as well as federal institutions that collect insured losses.

Also, past research has captured common weaknesses of national agency-led disaster loss databases, including:

  • over- or underreporting of certain hazard types (hazard bias)

  • gaps in historic records (temporal bias)

  • overreliance on direct and/or monetized losses (accounting bias)

  • focus on high impact and/or acute events while ignoring the extensive impacts of slow disasters or highly localized cascading disasters (threshold bias)

  • overrepresentation of densely populated and/or easily accessible areas (geography bias)

What lessons can be learned from past nationwide open data initiatives?

The National Weather Service’s Storm Events Database, the USDA’s Risk Management Agency’s Crop Data, and the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Modernization Initiative provide good templates for how to roll up data from the local to federal level. However, it is important to recognize that past initiatives, such as NOAA’s NIDIS initiative, have found it challenging to go beyond data collection on standard metrics of immediate loss and damage to also capture data on impacts and outcomes. Further, disaster loss and damage data are not currently integrated with other datasets that may capture secondary and cascading effects, such as, injuries, morbidities, and mortalities captured in CDC’s data.

Defining new standards that expand the range of attributes to be collected in consistent and interoperable formats would allow for moving beyond hazard and geographic silos, allowing data to be open, accessible, and usable. In turn, this will require new capacity and operational commitments, including an exploration of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and distributed ledger system (DLS) and blockchain technology, to undertake expanded data collection, sharing, and reporting across missions and scales.

How will the Open Disaster Data Initiative take account of data ethics and governance?

Aligning with guidance provided in the OSTP’s recent Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and several research collective initiatives in recent years, the Open Disaster Data Initiative should seek to make disaster resilience, vulnerability, loss, and damage data FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) and usable in CARE-full ways (collective benefit, with authority to control, for responsible, and, ethical use).

What is a technical corrections bill?

A technical corrections bill is a type of congressional legislation to correct or clarify errors, omissions, or inconsistencies in previously passed laws. Technical corrections bills are typically noncontroversial and receive bipartisan support, as their primary goal is to correct mistakes rather than to make substantive policy changes. Technical corrections bills can be introduced at any time during a congressional session and may be standalone bills or amendments to larger pieces of legislation. They are typically considered under expedited procedures, such as suspension of the rules in the House of Representatives, which allows for quick consideration and passage with a two-thirds majority vote. In the Senate, technical corrections bills may be considered under unanimous consent agreements or by unanimous consent request, which allows for passage without a formal vote if no senator objects. Sometimes more involved technical corrections or light policy adjustments happen during “vote-o-rama” in the Senate.

Technical corrections bills or reports play an important role in the legislative process, particularly during appropriations and budgeting, by helping to ensure the accuracy and consistency of proposed funding levels and programmatic changes. For example, during the appropriations process, technical corrections may be needed to correct funding levels or programmatic details that were inadvertently left out of the original bill. These technical changes can be made to ensure that funding is allocated to the intended programs or projects and that the language of the bill accurately reflects the intent of Congress.

Similarly, during the budgeting process, technical corrections may be needed to adjust estimates or projections based on new information or changes in circumstances that were not foreseen when the original budget was proposed. These technical changes can help to ensure that the budget accurately reflects the current economic and fiscal conditions and that funding priorities are aligned with the goals and priorities of Congress. For example, in 2021, Congress used a technical corrections bill to clarify budget allocations and program intent after Hurricane Ida to make recovery programs more efficient and help with overall disaster recovery program clarification. Similarly, in 2017, Congress relied on a technical corrections/suspension bill to clarify some confusing tax provisions related to previous legislation for relief from Hurricane Maria.

Building a National Network of Composite Pipes to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions


65,000 miles of pipeline: that’s the distance that may be necessary to achieve economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a Princeton University study. The United States is on the verge of constructing a vast network of pipelines to transport hydrogen and carbon dioxide, incentivized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Yet the lifecycle emissions generated by a typical steel pipeline is 27.35 kg carbon dioxide eq per ft1. Which means 65,000 miles would result in nearly 9.4 million megatons of carbon dioxide eq (equal to over 2 million passenger cars annually) produced just from steel pipeline infrastructure alone.

Pipelines made from composite materials offer one pathway to lowering emissions. Composite pipe is composed of multiple layers of different materials—typically a thermoplastic polymer as the primary structural layer with reinforcing materials such as fibers or particulate fillers to increase strength and stiffness. Some types have lifecycle emissions that are nearly one-third less than typical steel pipeline. Depending on the application, composite pipelines can be safer and less expensive. However, the process under Pipeline and Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration (PHMSA) to issue permits for composite pipe takes longer than steel, and for hydrogen and supercritical carbon dioxide, the industry lacks regulatory standards altogether. Reauthorization of the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act offers an excellent opportunity to review the policies concerning new, less emissive pipeline technologies.

Challenge and Opportunity


The United States is on the verge of a clean energy construction boom, expanding far beyond wind and solar energy to include infrastructure that utilizes hydrogen and carbon capture. The pump has been primed with $21 billion for demonstration projects or “hubs” in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and reinforced with another $7 billion for demonstration projects and at least $369 billion in tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act. Congress recognized that pipelines are a critical component and provided $2.1 billion in loans and grants under the Carbon Dioxide Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (CIFIA).

The United States is crisscrossed by pipelines. Approximately 3.3 million miles of predominately steel pipelines convey trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products each year. A far fewer 5,000 miles are used to transport carbon dioxide and only 1,600 miles are dedicated to hydrogen. Research suggests the existing pipeline network is nowhere near what is needed. According to Net Zero America, approximately 65,000 miles of pipeline will be needed to transport captured carbon dioxide to achieve economy-wide net zero emissions in the United States by 2050. The study also identifies a need for several thousand miles of pipelines to transport hydrogen within each region.

Making pipes out of steel is a carbon-intensive process, and steel manufacturing in general accounts for seven to nine percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. There are ongoing efforts to lower emissions generated from steel (i.e., “green steel”) by being more energy efficient, capturing and storing emitted carbon dioxide, recycling scrap steel combined with renewable energy, and using low-emissions hydrogen. However, cost is a significant challenge with many of these mitigation strategies. The estimated cost of transitioning global steel assets to net-zero compatible technologies by 2050 is $200 billion, in addition to a baseline average of $31 billion annually to simply meet growing demand.


Given the vast network of pipelines required to achieve a net-zero future, expanding use of composite pipe provides a significant opportunity for the United States to lower carbon emissions. Composite materials are highly resistant to corrosion, weigh less and are more flexible, and have improved flow capacity. This means that pipelines made from composite materials have a longer service life and require less maintenance than steel pipelines. Composite pipe can be four times faster to install, require one-third the labor to install, and have significantly lower operating costs.2 The use of composite pipe is expected to continue to grow as technological advancements make these materials more reliable and cost-effective. 

Use of composite pipe is also expanding as industry seeks to improve its sustainability. We performed a lifecycle analysis on thermoplastic pipe, which is made by a process called extrusion that involves melting a thermoplastic material, such as high-density polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride, and then forcing it through a die to create a continuous tube. The tube can then be cut to the desired length and fittings can be attached to the ends to create a complete pipeline. We found that the lifecycle emissions from thermoplastic pipe were 6.83 kg carbon dioxide eq/ft and approximately 75% lower than an equivalent length of steel pipe, which has lifecycle emissions of 27.35 kg carbon dioxide eq/ft. 

These estimates do not include potential differences in leaks. Specifically, composite pipe has a continuous structure that allows for the production of longer pipe sections, resulting in fewer joints and welds. In contrast, metallic pipes are often manufactured in shorter sections due to limitations in the manufacturing process. This means that more joints and welds are required to connect the sections together, which can increase the risk of leaks or other issues. Further, approximately half of the steel pipelines in the United States are over 50 years old, increasing the potential for leaks and maintenance cost.3 Another advantage of composite pipe is that it can be pulled through steel pipelines, thereby repurposing aging steel pipelines to transport different materials while also reducing the need for new rights of way and associated permits. 

Despite the advantages of using composite materials, the standards have not yet been developed to allow for safe permitting to transport supercritical carbon dioxide4 and hydrogen. At the federal level, pipeline safety is administered by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA).5 To ensure safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials, PHMSA establishes national policy, sets and enforces standards, educates, and conducts research to prevent incidents. There are regulatory standards to transport supercritical carbon dioxide in steel pipe.6 However, there are no standards for composite pipe to transport either hydrogen or carbon dioxide in either a supercritical liquid, gas, or subcritical liquid state.

Repurposing existing infrastructure is critical because the siting of pipelines, regardless of type, is often challenging. Whereas natural gas pipelines and some oil pipelines can invoke eminent domain provisions under federal law such as the Natural Gas Act or Interstate Commerce Act, no such federal authorities exist for hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipelines. In some states, specific statutes address eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines. These laws typically establish the procedures for initiating eminent domain proceedings, determining the amount of compensation to be paid to property owners, and resolving disputes related to eminent domain. However, current efforts are under way in states such as Iowa to restrict use of state authorities to grant eminent domain to pending carbon dioxide pipelines. The challenges with eminent domain underscore the opportunity provided by technologies that allow for the repurposing of existing pipeline to transport carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Plan of Action

How can we build a vast network of carbon dioxide and hydrogen pipelines while also using lower emissive materials? 

Recommendation 1. Develop safety standards to transport hydrogen and supercritical carbon dioxide using composite pipe. 

PHMSA, industry, and interested stakeholders should work together to develop safety standards to transport hydrogen and supercritical carbon dioxide using composite pipe. Without standards, there is no pathway to permit use of composite pipe. This collaboration could occur within the context of PHMSA’s recent announcement to update its standards for transporting carbon dioxide, which is being done in response to an incident in 2020 in Sartartia, MS.

Ideally, the permits could be issued using PHMSA’s normal process rather than as special permits (e.g., 49 CFR § 195.8). It takes several years to develop standards, so it is critical to launch the standard-setting process so that composite pipe can be used in Department of Energy-funded hydrogen hubs and carbon capture demonstration projects.

Europe is ahead of the United States in this regard, as the classification company DNV is currently undertaking a joint industry project to review the cost and risk of using thermoplastic pipe to transport hydrogen. This work will inform regulators in the European Union, who are currently revising standards for hydrogen infrastructure. The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance recently adopted a “Roadmap on Hydrogen Standardization” that expressly recommends setting standards for non-metallic pipes. To the extent practicable, it would benefit export markets for U.S. products if the standards were similar.  

Recommendation 2. Streamline the permitting process to retrofit steel pipelines. 

Congress should streamline the retrofitting of steel pipes by enacting a legislative categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate actions that may have a significant effect on the environment. Categorical exclusions (CEs) are categories of actions that have been determined to have no significant environmental impact and therefore do not require an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS) before they can proceed. CEs can be processed within a few days, thereby expediting the review of eligible actions.

The CE process allows federal agencies to avoid the time and expense of preparing an EA or EIS for actions that are unlikely to have significant environmental effects. CEs are often established through agency rulemaking but can also be created by Congress as a “legislative CE.” Examples include minor construction activities, routine maintenance and repair activities, land transfers, and research and data collection. However, even if an action falls within a CE category, the agency must still conduct a review to ensure that there are no extraordinary circumstances that would warrant further analysis.

Given the urgency to deploy clean technology infrastructure, Congress should authorize federal agencies to apply a categorical exclusion where steel pipe is retrofitted using composite pipe. In such situations, the project is using an existing pipeline right-of-way, and there should be few, if any, additional environmental impacts. Should there be any extraordinary circumstances, such as substantial changes in the risk of environmental effects, federal agencies would be able to evaluate the project under an EA or EIS. A CE does not obviate the review of safety standards and other applicable, substantive laws, but simply right-sizes the procedural analysis under NEPA.

Recommendation 3. Explore opportunities to improve the policy framework for composite pipe during reauthorization of the PIPES Act. 

Both of the aforementioned ideas should be considered as Congress initiates its reauthorization of the Protecting Our Infrastructure of Pipelines and Enhancing Safety (PIPES) Act of 2020. Among other improvements to pipeline safety, the PIPES Act reauthorized PHMSA through FY2023. As Congress begins work on its next reauthorization bill for PHMSA, it is the perfect time to review the state of the industry, including the potential for composite pipe to accelerate the energy transition.

Recommendation 4. Consider the embedded emissions of construction materials when funding demonstration projects. 

The Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations should consider the embedded emissions of construction materials when evaluating projects for funding. Applicants that have a plan to consider embedded emissions of construction materials could receive additional weight in the selection process. 

Recommendation 5. Support research and development of composite materials. 

Composite materials offer advantages in many other applications, not just pipelines. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) should support research to further enhance the properties of composite pipe while improving lifecycle emissions. In addition to ongoing efforts to lower the emissions intensity of steel and concrete, EERE should support innovation in alternative, composite materials for pipelines and other applications.


Recent legislation will spark construction of the next generation in clean energy infrastructure, and the funding also creates an opportunity to deploy construction materials with lower lifecycle emissions of greenhouse gases. This is important, because constructing vast networks of pipelines using high-emissive processes undercuts the goals of the legislation. However, the regulatory code remains an impediment by failing to provide a pathway for using composite materials. PHMSA and industry should commence discussions to create the requisite safety standards, and Congress should work with both industry and regulators to streamline the NEPA process when retrofitting steel pipelines. As America commences construction of hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage networks, reauthorization of the PIPES Act provides an excellent opportunity to significantly lower the emissions.

Frequently Asked Questions
How did you calculate a lifecycle analysis (LCA) for composite pipe?

We compared two types of pipes: 4” API 5L X42 metallic pipe vs. 4” Baker Hughes non-metallic next generation thermoplastic flexible pipe. The analysis was conducted using FastLCA, a proprietary web application developed by Baker Hughes and certified by an independent reviewer to quantify carbon emissions from our products and services. The emission factors for the various materials and processes are based on the ecoinvent 3.5 database for global averages.

  • The data for flexible pipe production is from 2020 production year and represents transport, machine, and energy usage at the Baker Hughes’ manufacturing plant located in Houston, TX.
  • All raw material and energy inputs for flex pipes are taken directly from engineering and plant manufacturing data, as verified by engineering and manufacturing personnel, and represent actual usage to manufacture the flexible pipes.
  • All of the data for metallic pipe production is from API 5L X42 schedule 80 pipe specifications and represent transport from Alabama and energy usage for production from global averages.
  • All raw material and energy inputs for hot rolling steel are computed from ecoinvent 3.5 database emission factors. All relevant production steps and processes are modeled.
  • All secondary processes are from the ecoinvent 3 database (version 3.5 compiled as of November 2018) as applied in SimaPro
  • Results are calculated using IPCC 2013 GWP 100a (IPCC AR5).
What are the safety risks of transporting hydrogen and carbon dioxide using composite pipe?

Similar to steel pipe, transporting hydrogen and carbon dioxide using composite pipe poses certain safety risks that must be carefully managed and mitigated:

  • Hydrogen gas can diffuse into the composite material and cause embrittlement, which can lead to cracking and failure of the pipe.
  • The composite material used in the pipe must be compatible with hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Incompatibility can cause degradation of the pipe due to permeation, leading to leaks or ruptures.
  • Both hydrogen and carbon dioxide are typically transported at high pressure, which can increase the risk of pipe failure due to stress or fatigue.
  • Carbon dioxide can be corrosive to certain metals, which can lead to corrosion of the pipe and eventual failure.
  • Hydrogen is highly flammable and can ignite in the presence of an ignition source, such as a spark or heat.

To mitigate these safety risks, appropriate testing, inspection, and maintenance procedures must be put in place. Additionally, proper handling and transportation protocols should be followed, including strict adherence to pressure and temperature limits and precautions to prevent ignition sources. Finally, emergency response plans should be developed and implemented to address any incidents that may occur during transportation.

What are the existing relevant standards that need to be updated?

API Specification 15S, Spoolable Reinforced Plastic Line Pipe, covers the use of flexible composite pipe in onshore applications. The standard does not address transport of carbon dioxide and has not been incorporated into PHMSA’s regulations.

API Specification 17J, Specification for Unbonded Flexible Pipe, covers the use of flexible composite pipe in offshore applications. Similar to 15S, it does not address transport of carbon dioxide and has not been incorporated into PHMSA’s regulations.

Do the same recommendations apply to high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe?

HDPE pipe, commonly used in applications such as water supply, drainage systems, gas pipelines, and industrial processes, has similar advantages to composite pipe in terms of flexibility, ease of installation, and low maintenance requirements. It can be assembled to create seamless joints, reducing the risk of leaks. It can also be used to retrofit steel pipes as a liner per API SPEC 15LE.

HDPE pipe has been approved by PHMSA to transport natural gas under 49 CFR Part 192. However, the typical operating pressures (e.g., 100 psi) are significantly lower than composite pipe. Similar to composite pipe, there are no standards for the transport of hydrogen and carbon dioxide, though HDPE pipe’s lower pressure limits make it less suited for use in carbon capture and storage.

Meeting Agricultural Sustainability Goals by Increasing Federal Funding for Research on Genetically Engineered Organisms


Ensuring the sustainability and resiliency of American food systems is an urgent priority, especially in the face of challenges presented by climate change and international geopolitical conflicts. To address these issues, increased federal investment in new, sustainability-oriented agricultural technology is necessary in order to bring greater resource conservation and stress tolerance to American farms and fields. Ongoing advances in bioengineering research and development (R&D) offer a diverse suite of genetically engineered organisms, including crops, animals, and microbes. Given the paramount importance of a secure food supply for national well-being, federal actors should promote the development of genetically engineered organisms for agricultural applications. 

Two crucial opportunities are imminent. First, directives in the Biden Administration’s bioeconomy executive order provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) a channel through which to request funding for sustainability-oriented R&D in genetically engineered organisms. Second, renewal of the Farm Bill in 2023 provides a venue for congressional legislators to highlight genetic engineering as a funding focus area of existing research grant programs. Direct beneficiaries of the proposed federal funding will predominantly be nonprofit research organizations such as land grant universities; innovations resulting from the funded research will provide a public good that benefits producers and consumers alike. 

Challenge and Opportunity

The resiliency of American agriculture faces undeniable challenges in the coming decades. The first is resource availability, which includes scarcities of fertile land due to soil degradation and of water due to overuse and drought. Resource availability is also vulnerable to acute challenges, as revealed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukraine war on the supply of vital inputs such as fertilizer and gas. The second set of challenges are environmental stressors, many of which are exacerbated by climate change. Flooding can wipe out an entire harvest, while the spread of pathogens poses existential risks not only to individual livelihoods but also to the global market of crops like citrus, chocolate, and banana. Such losses would be devastating for both consumers and producers, especially those in the global south. 

Ongoing advances in bioengineering R&D provide technological solutions in the form of a diverse suite of genetically engineered organisms. These have the potential to address many of the aforementioned challenges, including increasing yield and/or minimizing inputs and boosting resilience to drought, flood, and pathogens. Indeed, existing transgenic crops, such as virus-resistant papaya and flood-tolerant rice, demonstrate the ability of genetically engineered organisms to address agricultural challenges. They can also address other national priorities such as climate change and nutrition by enhancing carbon sequestration and improving the nutritional profile of food. 

Recent breakthroughs in modifying and sequencing DNA have greatly enhanced the speed of developing new, commercializable bioengineered varieties, as well as the spectrum of traits and plants that can be engineered. This process has been especially expedited by the use of CRISPR gene-editing technology; the European Sustainable Agriculture Through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE)’s database documents more than 500 instances of gene-edited crops developed in research laboratories to target traits for sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture. There is thus vast potential for genetically engineered organisms to contribute to sustainable agriculture. 

More broadly, this moment can be leveraged to bring about a turning point in the public perception of genetically engineered organisms. Past generations of genetically engineered organisms have been met with significant public backlash, despite the pervasiveness of inter-organism gene transfer throughout the history of life on earth (see FAQ). Reasons for negative public perception are complex but include the association of genetically engineered organisms with industry profit, as well as an embrace of the precautionary principle to a degree that far exceeds its application to other products, such as pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, persistent misinformation and antagonistic activism have engendered entrenched consumer distrust. The prior industry focus on herbicide resistance traits also contributed to the misconception that the technology is only used to increase the use of harmful chemicals in the environment. 

Now, however, a new generation of genetically engineered organisms feature traits beyond herbicide resistance that address sustainability issues such as reduced spoilage. Breakthroughs in DNA sequencing, as well as other analytical tools, have increased our understanding of the properties of newly developed organisms. There is pervasive buy-in for agricultural sustainability goals across many stakeholder sectors, including individual producers, companies, consumers, and legislators on both sides of the aisle. There is great potential for genetically engineered organisms to be accepted by the public as a solution to a widely recognized problem. Dedicated federal funding will be vital in seeing that this potential is realized.

Plan of Action

Recommendation 1: Fund genetically engineered organisms pursuant to the Executive Order on the bioeconomy.

Despite the importance of agriculture for the nation’s basic survival and the clear impact of agricultural innovation, USDA’s R&D spending pales in comparison to other agencies and other expenditures. In 2022, for example, USDA’s R&D budget was a mere 6% of the National Institutes of Health’s R&D budget, and R&D comprised only 9.6% of USDA’s overall discretionary budget. The Biden Administration’s September 2022 executive order provides an opportunity to amend this funding shortfall, especially for genetically engineered organisms.  

The Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy explicitly embraces an increased role for biotechnology in agriculture. Among the policy objectives outlined is the call to “boost sustainable biomass production and create climate-smart incentives for American agricultural producers and forest landowners.” 

Pursuant to this objective, the EO directs the USDA to submit a plan comprising programs and budget proposals to “support the resilience of the United States biomass supply chain [and] encourage climate-smart production” by September 2023. This plan provides the chance for the USDA to secure funding for agricultural R&D in a number of areas. Here, we recommend (1) USDA collaboration in Department of Energy (DoE) research programs amended under the CHIPS and Science Act and (2) funding for startup seed grants. 

CHIPS and Science Act

The 2022 CHIPS and Science Act aims to accelerate American innovation in a number of technology focus areas, including engineering biology. To support this goal, the Act established a new National Engineering Biology Research and Development Initiative (Section 10402). As part of this initiative, the USDA was tasked with supporting “research and development in engineering biology through the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture programs and grants, and the Office of the Chief Scientist.” Many of the initiative’s priorities are sustainability-oriented and could benefit from genetic engineering contributions. 

A highlight is the designation of an interagency committee to coordinate activities. To leverage and fulfill this mandate, we recommend that the USDA better coordinate with the DoE on bioengineering research. Specifically, the USDA should be involved in the decision-making process for awarding research grants relating to two DoE programs amended by the Act.

The first program is the Biological and Environmental Research Program, which includes carbon sequestration, gene editing, and bioenergy. (See the Appendix for a table summarizing examples of how genetic engineering can contribute sustainability-oriented technologies to these key focus areas.)

The second program is the Basic Energy Sciences Program, which has authorized funding for a Carbon Sequestration Research and Geologic Computational Science Initiative under the DoE. Carbon sequestration via agriculture is not explicitly mentioned in this section, but this initiative presents another opportunity for the USDA to collaborate with the DoE and secure funding for agricultural climate solutions. Congress should make appropriating funding for this program a priority.

Seed Grants

The USDA should pilot a seed grant program to accelerate technology transfer, a step that often poses a bottleneck. The inherent risk of R&D and entrepreneurship in a cutting-edge field may pose a barrier to entry for academic researchers as well as small agricultural biotech companies. Funding decreases the barrier of entry, thus increasing the diversity of players in the field. This can take the form of zero-equity seed grants. Similar to the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s seed grant program, which awards $200+ million R&D funding to about 400 startups, this would provide startups with funding without the risks attached to venture capital funding (such as being ousted from company leadership). The NSF’s funding is spread across numerous disciplines, so a separate agricultural initiative from the USDA dedicated to supporting small agricultural biotech companies would be beneficial. These seed grants would meet a need unmet by USDA’s existing small business grant programs, which are only awarded to established companies.

Together, the funding areas outlined above would greatly empower the USDA to execute the EO’s objective of promoting climate-smart American agriculture.

Recommendation 2: Allocate funding through the 2023 Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill, the primary tool by which the federal government sets agricultural policy, will be renewed in 2023. Several existing mandates for USDA research programs, administered through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as competitive grants, have been allocated federal funding. Congressional legislators should introduce amendments in the mandates for these programs such that the language explicitly highlights R&D of genetically engineered organisms for sustainable agriculture applications. Such programs include the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a major competitive grant program, as well as the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative. Suggested legislative text for these amendments are provided in the Appendix. Promoting R&D of genetically engineered organisms via existing programs circumvents the difficulty of securing appropriations for new initiatives while also presenting genetically engineered organisms as a critically important category of agricultural innovation.

Additionally, Congress should appropriate funding for the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA) at its full $50 million authorization. Similar to its counterparts in other agencies such as ARPA-E and DARPA, AgARDA would enable “moonshot” R&D projects that are high-reward but high-risk or have a long timeline—such as genetically engineered organisms with genetically complex traits. This can be especially valuable for promoting the development of sustainability-oriented crops traits: though they are a clear public good, they may be less profitable and/or marketable than crops with consumer-targeted traits such as sweetness or color, and as such profit-driven companies may be dissuaded from investing in their development. The USDA just published its implementation strategy for AgARDA. Congress must now fully fund AgARDA such that it can execute its strategy and fuel much-needed innovation in agricultural biotechnology. 


Current federal funding for genetically engineered organism R&D does not reflect their substantial impact in ensuring a sustainable, climate-smart future for American agriculture, with applications ranging from increasing resource-use efficiency in bioproduction to enhancing the resilience of food systems to environmental and manmade crises. Recent technology breakthroughs have opened many frontiers in engineering biology, but free market dynamics alone are not sufficient to guarantee that these breakthroughs are applied in the service of the public good in a timely manner. The USDA and Congress should therefore take advantage of upcoming opportunities to secure funding for genetic engineering research projects.


Biological and Environmental Research Program Examples 

Research focus area added in CHIPS and Science ActExample of genetic engineering contribution
Bioenergy and biofuelOptimizing biomass composition of bioenergy crops
Non-food bioproductsLab-grown cotton; engineering plants and microbes to produce medicines
Carbon sequestrationImproving photosynthetic efficiency; enhancing carbon storage in plant roots
Plant and microbe interactionsEngineering microbes to counter plant pathogens; engineering microbes to make nutrients more accessible to plants
BioremediationEngineering plants and microbes to sequester and/or breakdown contaminants in soil and groundwater
Gene editing Engineering plants for increased nutrient content, disease-resistance, storage performance
New characterization toolsCreating molecular reporters of plant response to abiotic and biotic environmental dynamics 

Farm Bill Amendments 

Agriculture and Food Research Initiative

One of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)’s focus areas is Sustainable Agricultural Systems, with topics including “advanced technology,” which supports “cutting-edge research to help farmers produce higher quantities of safer and better quality food, fiber, and fuel to meet the needs of a growing population.” Furthermore, AFRI’s Foundational and Applied Science Program supports grants in priority areas including plant health, bioenergy, natural resources, and environment. The 2023 Farm Bill could amend the Competitive, Special, and Facilities Research Grant Act (7 U.S.C. 3157) to highlight the potential of genetic engineering in the pursuit of AFRI’s goals. 

Example text: 

Subsection (b)(2) of the Competitive, Special, and Facilities Research Grant Act (7 U.S.C. 3157(b)(2)) is amended—

(1) in subparagraph (A)—

(A) in clause (ii), by striking the semicolon at the end and inserting “including genetic engineering methods to make modifications (deletions and/or insertions of DNA) to plant genomes for improved food quality, improved yield under diverse growth conditions, and improved conservation of resource inputs such as water, nitrogen, and carbon;”;

(B) in clause (vi), by striking the “and”;

(C) in clause (vii), by striking the period at the end and inserting “; and”; and

(D) by adding at the end the following: 

“(viii) plant-microbe interactions, including the identification and/or genetic engineering of microbes beneficial for plant health”

(2) in subparagraph (C), clause (iii), by inserting “production and” at the beginning;

(3) in subparagraph (D)– 

(A) in clause (vii), by striking “and”;

(B) in clause (vii), by striking the period at the end and inserting “; and”; and

(C) by adding at the end the following: 

“(ix) carbon sequestration”.

Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative

The goal of this initiative is to understand the function of plant genes, which is critical to crop genetic engineering for sustainability. The ability to efficiently insert and edit genes, as well as to precisely control gene expression (a core tenet of synthetic biology), would facilitate this goal.

Example text:

Section 1671(a) of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 5924(a)) is amended—

  1. In subparagraph (4), by inserting “and environmental” after “achieve advances in crops and animals that generate societal”; and
  2. In subparagraph (5), by inserting “genetic engineering, synthetic biology,” after “to combine fields such as genetics, genomics,”

Specialty Crop Research Initiative

Specialty crops can be a particularly fertile ground for research. There is a paucity of genetic engineering tools for specialty crops as compared to major crops (e.g. wheat, corn, etc.). At the same time, specialty crops such as fruit trees offer the opportunity to effect larger sustainability impacts: as perennials, they remain in the soil for many years, with particular implications for water conservation and carbon sequestration. Finally, economically important specialty crops such as oranges are under extreme disease threat, as identified by the Emergency Citrus Disease Research and Extension Program. Genetic engineering offers potential solutions that could be accelerated with funding. 

Example text:

Section 412(b) of the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 (7 U.S.C. 7632(b)) is amended—

  1. In paragraph (1), by inserting “transgenics, gene editing, synthetic biology” after “research in plant breeding, genetics,” and—
    1. In subparagraph (B), by inserting “and enhanced carbon sequestration capacity” after “size-controlling rootstock systems”; and
    2. In subparagraph (C), by striking the semi-colon at the end and inserting “, including water-use efficiency;”
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the definition of a genetically engineered organism? What is the difference between genetically engineered, genetically modified, transgenic, gene-edited, and bioengineered?

Scientists usually use the term “genetic engineering” as a catch-all phrase for the myriad methods of changing an organism’s DNA outside of traditional breeding, but this is not necessarily reflected in usage by regulatory agencies. The USDA’s glossary, which is not regulatorily binding, defines “genetic engineering” as “​​manipulation of an organism’s genes by introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.” Meanwhile, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)’s 2020 SECURE rule defines “genetic engineering” as “techniques that use recombinant, synthesized, or amplified nucleic acids to modify or create a genome.” The USDA’s glossary defines “genetic modification” as “the production of heritable improvements in plants or animals for specific uses, via either genetic engineering or other more traditional methods”; however, the USDA National Organic Program has used “genetic engineering” and “genetic modification” interchangeably. 

“Transgenic” organisms can be considered a subset of genetically engineered organisms and result from the insertion of genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA techniques. “Gene editing” or “genome editing” refers to biotechnology techniques like CRISPR that make changes in a specific location in an organism’s DNA. 

The term “bioengineered” does carry regulatory weight. The USDA-AMS’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), published in 2018 and effective as of 2019, defines “bioengineered” as “contains genetic material that has been modified through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) techniques; and for which the modification could not otherwise be obtained through conventional breeding or found in nature.” Most gene-edited crops currently in development, such as those where the introduced gene is known to occur in the species naturally, are exempt from regulation under both the AMS’s NBFDS and APHIS’s SECURE acts.

What are some examples of genetic engineering methods?

Though “genetic engineering” has only entered the popular lexicon in the last several decades, humans have modified the genomes of plants for millennia, in many different ways. Through genetic changes introduced via traditional breeding, teosinte became maize 10,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, and hybrid rice was developed in 20th-century China. Irradiation has been used to generate random mutations in crops for decades, and the resulting varieties have never been subject to any special regulation.

In fact, transfer of genes between organisms occurs all the time in nature. Bacteria often transfer DNA to other bacteria, and some bacteria can insert genes into plants. Indeed, one of the most common “genetic engineering” approaches used today, Agrobacterium-mediated gene insertion, was inspired by that natural phenomenon. Other methods of DNA delivery including biolistics (“gene gun”) and viral vectors. Each method for gene transfer has many variations, and each method varies greatly in its mode of action and capabilities. This is key for the future of plant engineering: there is a spectrum—not a binary division—of methods, and evaluations of engineered plants should focus on the end product.

How are genetically engineered organisms regulated in the United States?

Genetically engineered organisms are chiefly regulated by USDA-APHIS, the EPA, and the FDA as established by the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. They oversee experimental testing, approval, and commercial release. The Framework’s regulatory approach is grounded in the judgment that the potential risks associated with genetically engineered organisms can be evaluated the same way as those associated with traditionally bred organisms. This is in line with its focus on “the characteristics of the product and the environment into which it is being introduced, not the process by which the product is created.”

USDA-APHIS regulates the distribution of regulated organisms that are products of biotechnology to ensure that they do not pose a plant pest risk. Developers can petition for individual organisms, including transgenics, to be deregulated via Regulatory Status Review.

The EPA regulates the distribution, sale, use, and testing of all pesticidal substances produced in plants and microbes, regardless of method of production or mode of action. Products must be registered before distribution. 

The FDA applies the same safety standards to foods derived from genetically engineered organisms as it does to all foods under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The agency provides a voluntary consultation process to help developers ensure that all safety and regulatory concerns, such as toxicity, allergenicity, and nutrient content, are resolved prior to marketing.

How do genetically engineered crops work?

Mechanisms of action vary depending on the specific trait. Here, we explain the science behind two types of transgenic crops that have been widespread in the U.S. market for decades. 

Bt crops: Three of the major crops grown in the United States have transgenic Bt varieties: cotton, corn, and soybean. Bt crops are genetically engineered such that their genome contains a gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. This enables Bt crops to produce a protein, normally only produced by the Bt bacteria, that is toxic to a few specific plant pests but harmless for humans, other mammals, birds, and beneficial insects. In fact, the bacteria itself is approved for use as an organic insecticide. However, organic applications of Bt insecticides are limited in efficacy: since the bacteria must be topically applied to the crop, the protein it produces is ineffective against insects that have penetrated the plant or are attacking the roots; in addition, the bacteria can die or be washed away by rain. 

Engineering the crop itself to produce the insecticidal protein more reliably reduces crop loss due to pest damage, which also minimizes the need for other, often more broadly toxic systemic pesticides. Increased yield allows for more efficient use of existing agricultural land. In addition, decreased use of pesticides reduces the energy cost associated with their production and application while also preserving wildlife biodiversity. With regards to concerns surrounding insecticide resistance, the EPA requires farmers who employ Bt, both as a transgenic crop and as an organic spray, to also plant a refuge field of non-Bt crops, which prevents pests from developing resistance to the Bt protein.

The only substantive difference between Bt crops and non-Bt crops is that the former produces an insecticide already permitted by USDA organic regulations. 

Ringspot-resistant rainbow papaya: The transgenic rainbow papaya is another example of the benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture. Papaya plantations were ravaged by the papaya ringspot virus in the late 1900s, forcing many farmers to abandon their lands and careers. In response, scientists developed the rainbow papaya, which contains a gene from the virus itself that allows it to express a protein that counters viral infection. This transgenic papaya was determined to be equivalent in nutrition and all other aspects to the original papaya. The rainbow papaya, with its single gene insertion, is widely considered to have saved Hawaii’s papaya industry, which in 2013 accounted for nearly 25% of Hawaii’s food exports. Transgenic papaya now makes up about 80% of the Hawaiian papaya acreage. The remaining comprise non-GMO varieties, which would have gone locally extinct had it not been for transgenic papayas preventing the spread of the virus. The rainbow papaya’s success has clearly demonstrated that transgenic crops can preserve the genetic diversity of American crops and preserve yield without spraying synthetic pesticides, both of which are stated goals of the USDA Organic Program. However, the National Organic Program’s regulations currently forbid organic farmers from growing virus-resistant transgenic papaya.

How have recent biotechnology breakthroughs accelerated the development of new crops?

With the advent of CRISPR gene-editing technology, which allows scientists to make precise, targeted changes in an organism’s DNA, new genetically engineered crops are being developed at an unprecedented pace. These new varieties will encompass a wider variety of qualities than previously seen in the field of crop biotechnology. Many varieties are directly aimed at shoring up agricultural resilience in the face of climate change, with traits including tolerance to heat, cold, and drought. At the same time, the cost of sequencing an organism’s DNA continues to decrease. This makes it easier to confirm the insertion of multiple transgenes into a plant, as would be necessary to engineer crops to produce a natural herbicide. Such a crop, similar to Bt crops but targeting weeds instead of insects, would reduce reliance on synthetic herbicides while enabling no-till practices that promote soil health. Furthermore, cheap DNA sequencing facilitates access to information about the genomes of many wild relatives of modern crops. Scientists can then use genetic engineering to make wild relatives more productive or introduce wild traits like drought resilience into domesticated varieties. This would increase the genetic diversity of crops available to farmers and help avoid issues inherent to monocultures, most notably the uncontrollable spread of plant diseases. 

At present, most crops engineered with CRISPR technology do not contain genes from a different organism (i.e., not transgenic), and thus do not have to face the additional regulatory hurdles that transgenics like Bt crops did. However, crops developed via CRISPR are still excluded from organic farming.

What are examples of genetically engineered organisms currently on the market or in active development that address sustainability issues?

  • Improving sustainability and land conservation: potatoes that are slower to spoil, wheat with enhanced carbon sequestration capacity 

  • Increasing food quality and nutrition: vegetables with elevated micronutrient content 

  • Increasing and protecting agricultural yields: higher-yield fish, flood-tolerant rice

  • Protecting against plant and animal pests and diseases: blight-resistant chestnut, HLB-resistant citrus

  • Cultivating alternative food sources: bacteria for animal-free production of protein

Which agricultural stakeholders are engaged in genetic engineering R&D and will benefit from federal funding?

The pool of producers of genetically engineered crops is increasingly diverse. In fact, of the 37 new crops evaluated by APHIS’s Biotechnology Regulatory Service under the updated guidelines since 2021, only three were produced by large (>300 employees) for-profit corporations. Many were produced by startups and/or not-for-profit research institutions. USDA NIFA research grants predominantly fund land-grant universities; other awardees include private nonprofit organizations, private universities, and, in select cases (such as small business grants), private for-profit companies.

Why are GMOs so often vilified?

Historically, the concept of GMOs has been associated with giant multinational corporations, the so-called Big Ag. The most prevalent GMOs in the last several decades have indeed been produced by industry giants such as Dow, Bayer, and Monsanto. This association has fueled the negative public perception of GMOs in several ways, including: 

  • Some companies, such as Dow, were responsible for producing the notorious chemical Agent Orange, used to devastating effect in the Vietnam War. While this is an unfortunate shadow on the company, it is unrelated to the properties of genetically engineered crops.

  • Companies have been accused of financially disadvantaging farmers by upholding patents on GMO seeds, which prevents farmers from saving seeds from one year’s crop to plant the next season. Companies have indeed enforced seed patents (which generally last about 20 years), but it is important to note that (1) seed-saving has not been standard practice on many American farms for many decades, since the advent of (nonbioengineered) hybrid crops, from which saved seeds will produce an inferior crop, and (2) bioengineered seeds are not the only seeds that can be and are patented.

118th Congress: Resilient Agriculture, Society & Environment

Over the past several years, instability has been a national and global constant. The COVID-19 pandemic upended supply chains and production systems. Floods, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, and fires have imposed catastrophic consequences and forced people to reconsider where they can safely live. Russia’s war with Ukraine and other geopolitical conflicts have forced countries around the world to scramble for reliable energy sources.

Congress must act decisively to fortify the United States against these and future destabilizing threats. Priorities include revitalizing U.S. agriculture to ensure a dependable, affordable, and diverse food supply; improving disaster preparation and response; and driving development and oversight of critical environmental technologies.

Revitalizing U.S. Agriculture. Every society needs a robust food supply to survive, thrive, and grow. But skyrocketing food prices and agricultural supply-chain disruptions indicate that our nation’s food supply may be on shaky ground. Congress can take measures to rebuild a world-leading U.S. agricultural sector that is sustainable amid evolving external pressures.

A first step is to invest in agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship. The 2018 Farm Bill created the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA) as a driver of transformative progress in agriculture, but failed to equip the institution with a key tool: prize authority. Prizes have proven to be force multipliers for innovation dollars invested by many institutions, including other Advanced Research Projects Agencies (ARPAs). It would be simple for Congress to extend prize authority to AgARDA as well.

Prize authority at AgARDA would be especially powerful if coupled with additional support for agricultural entrepreneurship. Congress should fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Minority Business Development Administration (MBDA) with $25 million per year for five years to jointly develop a “Ground Up” program to help Americans start small businesses focused on sustainable agriculture.

We must also begin viewing our nation’s soil as a strategic resource. Farmers and ranchers cannot succeed without good places to plant crops and graze livestock. But our nation’s fertile soil is being lost ten times faster than it is being produced. At this rate, many parts of the country will run out of arable land in the next 50 years. Some places—such as the Piedmont region of the eastern United States—already have. States including New Mexico, Illinois, and Nebraska have already introduced or passed legislation to preserve and restore soil health; Congress should follow their example. A comprehensive soil-health bill could, for instance, create bridge-loan projects for farmers transitioning to soil-protective farm practices, expand the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program to cover such practices, fund USDA Extension offices to provide related technical assistance, and support regenerative agriculture in general.

Finally, Congress should extend funding for two programs that are delivering clear benefits to U.S. food systems. With major food production concentrated in five states, often far from major population centers, the farm-to-table pathway is extraordinarily susceptible to disruptions. The American Rescue Plan Act created the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program to help small- and medium-sized enterprises strengthen this pathway, including through “aggregation, processing, manufacturing, storing, transporting, wholesaling or distribution of food.” This program should be continued and resourced going forward. In addition, the Bioproduct Pilot Program studies how materials derived from agricultural commodities can be used for construction and consumer products. This program increases economic activity in rural areas while also lowering commercialization risks associated with bringing bio-based products to market. Congress should extend funding for this program (currently set to expire after FY 2023) for at least $5 million per year through the end of FY 2028.

Improving Disaster Preparation and Response. Every year, Americans lose billions of dollars to natural hazards including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and droughts. We know these disasters will happen…yet only 15% of federal disaster funding is invested to blunt their effects. In particular, current disaster policy and practice lacks incentives for local governments to proactively reduce risks.

Congress can address this failure by amending aspects of the Stafford Act of 1988. In particular, Congress should redefine the disaster threshold in ways that factor in local capacity and ability to recover. Congress should also consider (i) reducing the federal cost share for disaster response, (ii) implementing other incentive models that may induce better local hazard-reduction decisions and improve long-term resilience, and (iii) strengthening existing incentive programs. For example, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS) could be improved by requiring local governments to take stronger actions to qualify for reduced insurance rates and increasing transparency about how community ratings are calculated. 

Disaster management response is not the sole purview of FEMA. For example, the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program positions the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a primary disaster-response funder. To ensure efficiency and prevent duplication of effort, Congress must clarify the role of each federal agency involved in disasters.

Congress should also ensure adequate research funding to investigate evidence-based and cost-effective disaster mitigation and response strategies. A useful first step would be doubling the interagency Disaster Resilience Research Grant (DRRG) program, which already supports researchers in groundbreaking modeling, simulations, and solutions development to protect Americans from the most catastrophic consequences.

Driving Development and Oversight of Critical Environmental Technologies. Environmental technologies are critical to ensure energy and resource security. Congress can use market-shaping mechanisms to pull critical environmental technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), forward. Operation Warp Speed demonstrated breakthrough capacity of federally backed advance market commitments (AMCs) to incentivize rapid development and scaling of transformative technologies. Building on this example, Congress should authorize a $1 billion AMC for scalable carbon-removal approaches—providing the large demand signal needed to attract market entrants, and helping to advance a clean all-of-the-above energy portfolio. This approach could then be extended to other environmentally relevant applications, such as building infrastructure to enable next-generation transportation.

Congress must also ensure responsible deployment and reasonable oversight of new environmental technologies. For instance, DOE recently launched an ambitious “Carbon Negative Shot” to foster breakthroughs in carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology, and is also leading an interagency CDR task force pursuing the advancement of many CDR approaches. But we lack a national carbon-accounting standard and tool to ensure that CDR initiatives are being implemented consistently, honestly, and successfully. Congress should work with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to address this assessment gap.

Similarly, the IRA appropriates over $405 million across federal agencies for activities including “the development of environmental data or information systems.” This could prove a prescient investment to efficiently guide future federal spending on environmental initiatives—but only if steps are taken to ensure that these dollars are not spent on duplicative efforts (for instance, water data are currently collected by 25 federal entities across 57 data platforms and 462 data types). Congress should therefore authorize and direct the creation of a Digital Service for the Planet “with the expertise and mission to coordinate environmental data and technology across agencies”, thus promoting efficiencies in the data enterprise. This centralized service could be established either as a branch of the existing U.S. Digital Service or as a parallel but distinct body.

Return to introduction

Assessing Agency-Reported Progress on the Justice40 Initiative

Question: What do family game nights and federal government initiatives have in common?

Answer: They’re both much easier to successfully start than to successfully finish.

Coordinating multiple stakeholders—each with their unique interests and perspectives—around a common goal is simply difficult. At FAS, we have yet to figure out how to best tackle family game nights. But we have found that for complex federal initiatives involving many agencies, taking the time to step back and assess progress to date often paves the way for continued future success. We also recognize that unless specifically tasked and resourced, Executive Branch agencies and offices generally lack capacity to do this on their own.

That’s why today, FAS is releasing an independent assessment of agency-reported progress on the Administration’s Justice40 Initiative—a landmark whole-of-government effort to ensure that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.

The complete assessment is freely available here. A supplemental spreadsheet to the assessment is available here.

The assessment focuses on the 175 Justice40 recommendations issued by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) in May 2021. Key takeaways include:

Additional background and insights from the assessment are provided below. 

The WHEJAC and the Justice40 Initiative

President Biden launched the Justice40 Initiative within days of taking office in January 2021. Executive Order (E.O.) 14008, which created the Initiative, also established the first-ever White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC). The WHEJAC comprises two dozen experts in environmental justice, climate change, disaster preparedness, racial inequity, and related fields. 

The WHEJAC’s mission is to provide advice and recommendations to the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council (IAC) “on how to increase the Federal Government’s efforts to address current and historic environmental injustice.” The WHEJAC’s first suite of recommendations, released in May 2021, included 175 specifically focused on the Justice40 Initiative. In May 2022, CEQ delivered a required report to Congress that included responses from the federal agencies named in each of these.

Assessing agency-reported progress on Justice40

To inform the WHEJAC’s future efforts, and to support ongoing implementation of the Justice40 Initiative, we at FAS conducted an independent assessment of the WHEJAC’s Justice40 recommendations and CEQ’s corresponding report. We emphasize that this assessment was scoped to elucidate key insights and trends from agency-reported progress on Justice40, and did not include independent verification of agency responses. The assessment includes five sections:

Read the full assessment:

Creating a Digital Service for the Planet


Challenge and Opportunity

The Biden administration—through directives such as Executive Order 14008 on Tackling the Climate Crises at Home and Abroad and President Biden’s Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, as well as through initiatives such as Justice40 and America the Beautiful (30×30)—has laid the blueprint for a data-driven environmental agenda. 

However, the data to advance this agenda are held and managed by multiple agencies, making them difficult to standardize, share, and use to their full potential. For example, water data are collected by 25 federal entities across 57 data platforms and 462 different data types. Permitting for wetlands, forest fuel treatments, and other important natural-resource management tasks still involves a significant amount of manual data entry, and protocols for handling relevant data vary by region or district. Staff at environmental agencies have privately noted that it can take weeks or months to receive necessary data from colleagues in other agencies, and that they have trouble knowing what data exist at other agencies. Accelerating the success and breadth of environmental initiatives requires digitized, timely, and accessible information for planning and execution of agency strategies.

The state of federal environmental data today echoes the state of public-health data in 2014, when President Obama recognized that the Department of Health and Human Services lacked the technical skill sets and capacity needed to stand up The Obama administration responded by creating the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), which provides federal agencies with on-demand access to the technical expertise they need to design, procure, and deploy technology for the public good. Over the past eight years, USDS has developed a scalable and replicable model of working across government agencies. Projects that USDS has been involved in—like improving federal procurement and hiring processes, deploying, and modernizing administrative tasks for veterans and immigrants—have saved agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs millions of dollars.

But USDS lacks the specialized capacity and skills, experience, and specific directives needed to fully meet the shared digital-infrastructure needs of environmental agencies. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) is an example of how crucial digital-service capacity is for tackling the nation’s environmental priorities, and the need for a DSP. While USDS was instrumental in getting the tool off the ground, several issues with the launch point to a lack of specialized environmental capabilities and expertise within USDS. Many known environmental-justice issues—including wildfire, drought, and flooding—were not reflected in the tool’s first iteration. In addition, the CEJST should have been published in July 2021, but the beta version was not released until February 2022. A DSP familiar with environmental data would have started with a stronger foundation to help anticipate and incorporate such key environmental concerns, and may have been able to deliver the tool on a tighter timeline.

There is hope in this challenge. The fact that many environmental programs across multiple federal agencies have overlapping data and technology needs means that a centralized and dedicated team focused on addressing these needs could significantly and cost-effectively advance the capacities of environmental agencies to:

Plan of Action

To best position federal agencies to meet environmental goals, the Biden administration should establish a “Digital Service for the Planet (DSP).” The DSP would build off the successes of USDS to provide support across three key areas for environmental agencies:

  1. Strategic planning and procurement. Scoping, designing, and procuring technology solutions for programmatic goals. For example, a DSP could help the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) accelerate updates to the National Wetlands Inventory, which are currently estimated to take 10 years and cost $20 million dollars.
  2. Technical development. Implementing targeted technical-development activities to achieve mission-related goals in collaboration with agency staff. For example, a DSP could help update the accessibility and utility for many government tools that the public rely heavily on, such as the Army Corps system that tracks mitigation banks (known as the Regulatory In lieu fee and Bank Information Tracking System (RIBITS)).
  3. Cross-agency coordination on digital infrastructure. Facilitating data inventory and sharing, and development of the databases, tools, and technological processes that make cross-agency efforts possible. A DSP could be a helpful partner for facilitating information sharing among agencies that monitor interrelated events, environments, or problems, including droughts, wildfires, and algal blooms. 

The DSP could be established either as a new branch of USDS, or as a new and separate but parallel entity housed within the White House Office of Management and Budget. The former option would enable DSP to leverage the accumulated knowledge and existing structures of USDS. The latter option would enable DSP to be established with a more focused mandate, and would also provide a clear entry point for federal agencies seeking data and technology support specific to environmental issues.

Regardless of the organizational structure selected, DSP should include the essential elements that have helped USDS succeed—per the following recommendations.

Recommendation 1. The DSP should emulate the USDS’s staffing model and position within the Executive Office of the President (EOP).

The USDS hires employees on short-term contracts, with each contract term lasting between six months and four years. This contract-based model enables USDS to attract high-level technologists, product designers, and programmers who are interested in public service, but not necessarily committed to careers in government. USDS’s staffing model also ensures that the Service does not take over core agency capacities, but rather is deployed to design and procure tech solutions that agencies will ultimately operate in-house (i.e., without USDS involvement). USDS’s position within the EOP makes USDS an attractive place for top-level talent to work, gives staff access to high-level government officials, and enables the Service to work flexibly across agencies.

Recommendation 2. Staff the DSP with specialists who have prior experience working on environmental projects.

Working on data and technology issues within environmental contexts requires specialized skill sets and experience. For example, geospatial data and analysis are fundamental to environmental protection and conservation, but this has not been a focal point of USDS hiring. In addition, a DSP staff fluent in the vast and specific terminologies used in environmental fields (such as water management) will be better able to communicate with the many subject-matter experts and data stewards working in environmental agencies. 

Recommendation 3. Place interagency collaboration at the core of the DSP mission.

Most USDS projects focus on a single federal agency, but environmental initiatives—and the data and tech needs they present—almost always involve multiple agencies. Major national challenges, including flood-risk management, harmful algal blooms, and environmental justice, all demand an integrated approach to realize cross-agency benefits. For example, EPA-funded green stormwater infrastructure could reduce flood risk for housing units subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. DSP should be explicitly tasked with devising approaches for tackling complex data and technology issues that cut across agencies. Fulfilling this mandate may require DSP to bring on additional expertise in core competencies such as data sharing and integration.

Recommendation 4. Actively promote the DSP to relevant federal agencies.

Despite USDS’s eight-year existence, many staff members at agencies involved in environmental initiatives know little about the Service and what it can do for them. To avoid underutilization due to lack of awareness, the DSP’s launch should include an outreach campaign targeted at key agencies, including but not limited to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).


A new Digital Service for the Planet could accelerate progress on environmental and natural-resource challenges through better use of data and technology. USDS has shown that a relatively small and flexible team can have a profound and lasting effect on how agencies operate, save taxpayer money, and encourage new ways of thinking about long standing problems. However, current capacity at USDS is limited and not specifically tailored to the needs of environmental agencies. From issues ranging from water management to environmental justice, ensuring better use of technology and data will yield benefits for generations to come. This is an important step for the federal government to be a better buyer, partner, and consumer of the data technology and innovations that are necessary to support the country’s conservation, water, and stewardship priorities.

Frequently Asked Questions
How would the DSP differ from the U.S. Digital Service?

The DSP would build on the successful USDS model, but would have two distinguishing characteristics. First, the DSP would employ staff experienced in using or managing environmental data and possessing special expertise in geospatial technologies, remote sensing, and other environmentally relevant tech capabilities. Second, DSP would have an explicit mandate to develop processes for tackling data and technology issues that frequently cut across agencies. For example, the Internet of Water found that at least 25 different federal entities collect water data, while the USGCRP has identified at least 217 examples of earth observation efforts spanning many agencies. USDS is not designed to work with so many agencies at once on a single project—but DSP would be.

Would establishing the DSP prohibit agencies from independently improving their data and tech practices? 

Not in most cases. The DSP would focus on meeting data and technology needs shared by multiple agencies. Agencies would still be free—and encouraged!—to pursue agency-specific data- and tech-improvement projects independently.

Indeed, a hope would be that by showcasing the value of digital services for environmental projects on a cross-agency basis, the DSP would inspire individual agencies to establish their own digital services teams. Precedent for this evolution exists: the USDS provided initial resources to solve digital challenges for and Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department of Veteran Affairs and Department of Defense have since started their internal digital services teams. However, even with agency-based digital service teams, there will always be a need for a team with a cross-agency view, especially given that so many environmental problems and solutions extend well beyond the borders of a single agency. Digital-service teams at multiple levels can be complementary and would focus on different project scopes and groups of users. For example, agency-specific digital-service teams would be much better positioned to help sustain agency-specific components of an effort established by DSP.

How much would this proposal cost?

We propose the DSP start with a mid-sized team of twenty to thirty full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) and a budget around $8 million. These personnel and financial allocations are in line with allocations for USDS. DSP could be scaled up over time if needed, just as USDS grew from approximately 12 FTEs in fiscal year (FY) 2014 to over 200 FTEs in FY 2022. The long-term target size of the DSP team should be informed by the uptake and success of DSP-led work.

Why would agencies want a DSP? Why would they see it as beneficial?

From our conversations with agency staff, we (the authors) have heard time and again that agencies see immense value in a DSP, and find that two scenarios often inhibit improved adoption of environmental data and technology. The first scenario is that environmental-agency staff see the value in pursuing a technology solution to make their program more effective, but do not have the authority or resources to implement the idea, or are not aware of the avenues available to do so. DSP can help agency staff design and implement modern solutions to realize their vision and coordinate with important stakeholders to facilitate the process.

The second scenario is that environmental-agency staff are trained experts in environmental science, but not in evaluating technology solutions. As such, they are poorly equipped to evaluate the integrity of proposed solutions from external vendors. If they end up trialing a solution that is a poor fit, they may become risk-averse to technology at large. In this scenario, there is tremendous value in having a dedicated team of experts within the government available to help agencies source the appropriate technology or technologies for their programmatic goals.

Reduce, Repurpose, Recharge: Establishing a Collaborative Doctrine of Groundwater Management in the Ogallala Aquifer


Climate change has resulted in extreme and irregular rain events across the United States. Consequently, farmers in the High Plains region have been increasingly dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer for water supplies. With an estimated value of $35 billion, this aquifer supports one-fifth of the nations’ wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle. The Ogallala once held enough water to fill Chicago’s Sears Tower over 2,000 times. Today, the aquifer has lost 30% of its supply — and it is being recharged at half the rate it is being depleted. The consequence of inaction is 70% aquifer depletion by 2060, which will reduce crop output by 30–40%.

Figure 1. Changes in groundwater levels in the Ogallala Aquifer from predevelopment to 2015. Adapted in the Fourth National Climate Assessment from McGuire et al. (2017).

This $14 billion loss to the High Plains agricultural production may be slowed and eventually reversed by (1) reducing Ogallala use, (2) repurposing existing supplies, and (3) recharging the aquifer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in collaboration with the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), should accordingly create the Reduce, Repurpose, Recharge Initiative (RRRI), a voluntary program designed to keep farmers engaged in groundwater conservation. This multi-state program will provide financial incentives to participating farmers in exchange for pledges to limit groundwater withdrawal and participate in training that will equip them with knowledge needed to fulfill those pledges. The RRRI will also make expert advisors available to consult with farmers on policies and funding opportunities related to groundwater conservation. Finally, this program will connect farmers across state lines, allowing them to learn from each other and work together on sustainable management of the Ogallala. The program should be funded through the various water-sustainability budgets of the DOI and USDA, as well as through FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program.

Challenge and Opportunity

Climate-change-induced droughts have increased the nation’s dependence on groundwater as a source for agriculture, industry, and domestic use. Excessive groundwater pumping has led to land subsidence and deterioration of water quality, increasing water-use cost and jeopardizing crop yield. The problem is especially acute in the Ogallala Aquifer of the High Plains region. The aquifer underlies eight states of the nation’s breadbasket — including Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas — and spans 175,000 square miles. Dependence on the Ogallala has depleted its supply by 30% to date, as shown in Figure 1. 90% of water withdrawn from the Ogallala is used for agricultural irrigation.

Strategic plans for the USDA and DOI make it clear that drought preparedness and water conservation/sustainability are national priorities. Multiple federal efforts exist to advance these priorities. Publicly accessible platforms hosting and providing groundwater data exist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and the cross-agency National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) partnership. The 2018 Farm Bill strengthened technical- and financial-assistance programs to help individual farms implement water-conservation technology; the bill also created an incentive program for agriculture-to-wetland conversion. From 2011–2018, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) ran the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI) to “support targeted, local efforts to conserve the availability of water, both its quantity and quality, in each of the States” covering the Ogallala. The OAI was successful in meeting its water-conservation goals. Recent surveys found that 93% of agricultural producers in the High Plains region believe that water conservation is important.

These past and ongoing initiatives demonstrate that federal will and stakeholder buy-in for aquifer conservation and restoration are there. The key need is for a program that provides farmers the incentives and technical assistance needed to minimize groundwater reliance, ending the tragedy of the commons in the Ogallala once and for all.

Plan of Action

USDA, DOI, and FEMA should launch a joint program designed to embed the three pillars of groundwater conservation — Reduce, Repurpose, and Recharge — into the practices of farmers in Ogallala states. The RRRI will provide a financial incentive to farmers in exchange for farmer commitments to:

  1. Achieve specified water-conservation targets.
  2. Participate in training opportunities and workshops teaching best practices for water conservation and aquifer recharge.

To succeed, the RRRI will require enthusiastic, voluntary participation from farmers across the High Plains region. Participation should be voluntary because studies have shown that voluntary programs are significantly more effective than mandates in achieving water-conservation goals. In a comparative case study about implementing

In a comparative case study about implementing a voluntary versus mandated water restriction, farmers under the voluntary restriction conserved more water relative to the mandatory regulation. A survey of these farmers attributed the group-education component of the voluntary program as the driving force for their restriction. Another survey similarly found that farmers’ altruistic views of water conservation led to longer-lasting participation in water-conservation activities. A comprehensive review of the outcomes of different water policies found that educational programs about water conservation were more effective in water use reduction and improving attitudes towards water conservation relative to mandatory water use restrictions.

To encourage voluntary participation, farmers who enroll in the RRRI would receive a financial incentive. The exact nature of the incentive would need to be determined by the implementing agencies, but could include preferential price setting, preferential market placement, or subsidies based on crop type. In exchange, farmers would agree to an initial water-use assessment performed by field experts (either employees or contractors of USDA or DOI). An appointed advisor (again, either employees or contractors of USDA or DOI) would then work with each farmer to establish long-term (5-year) water-conservation targets based on the assessment results. Each participating farmer would meet quarterly with their advisor to review their water-conservation plan, assess progress towards targets, make mutually agreeable target adjustments, and discuss challenges and solutions. Advisors would also be available in between quarterly meetings for interim questions and concerns.

Farmers who enroll in the RRRI would also commit to attending group trainings and workshops designed to help them identify and implement best water-conservation practices. These learning opportunities would be led by experts sourced from existing agricultural committees (e.g., NRCS Conservation Planners and Technical Service Providers, State Technical Committees, etc.) and water-conservation groups (e.g., Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, Groundwater Protection Council, etc.). The group-education curriculum would cover the three tenets of groundwater conservation: reduce, repurpose, and recharge. Table 1 provides a brief description of each tenet, along with examples of aligned activities and potential sources of funding for those activities. The curriculum would teach farmers how each tenet contributes to groundwater conservation, existing and emerging technologies and practices that farmers can implement to achieve each tenet, and financial vehicles available to fund implementation. An added benefit of the group education will be the establishment of a community of farmers across the Ogallala states in which ideas and experiences can be shared.

TenetDefinitionExample activitiesPotential funding source(s)
ReduceMinimizing water needs for existing systemsMore efficient irrigation NRCS’s Agricultural Management Assistance and Conservation Innovation Grants
RepurposeMove away from water-intensive practicesSwitch to less water-intensive cropsNRCS’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program andConservation Stewardship Program
RechargeReplenish groundwater source (aquifer)Capture excess stormwater; convert agricultural land to wetlands FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Grant; NRCS’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
Table 1. Definition, example activities, and potential funding sources for each groundwater-conservation tenet.

The RRRI should be established as a multi-agency collaboration. Each involved agency (USDA, DOI, and FEMA) can provide unique expertise. USDA can leverage its research arm, NIFA, to produce up-to-date technology recommendations and scientific assessments. USDA’s NRCS can provide the underlying technical and financial support for realizing the RRRI tenets. DOI can rely on USGS’s existing groundwater database and the NIDIS’s affiliated expert community of data scientists to support the granular, up-to-date groundwater measurements needed to assess water-conservation progress. DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can ensure the RRRI tenets are enacted (in parallel with implementation on privately owned farmland) across public lands in the High Plains region. Finally, FEMA can collaborate with NIDIS and with USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) to formally assess risks of drought and Ogallala depletion — assessments that can be used to make the case for the RRRI to farmers, funders, and policymakers. 

Early actions needed to launch the RRRI include:


Climate-change-induced droughts have increased farmer dependence on groundwater, resulting in a 30% depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer to date. Under current management practices, depletion of the Ogallala will reach 70% by 2060. We can solve the problem. The technology, technical expertise, programmatic and data infrastructure, and financial support for groundwater conservation exist. The key need is to directly connect farmers with — and motivate them to use — these resources. A joint USDA/DOI/FEMA program founded in the “Reduce, Repurpose, Recharge” tenets of water conservation can do just that for farmers across the High Plains region. By coupling financial incentives with tailored water-conservation targets, technical expertise, and group educational opportunities, the RRRI will meaningfully advance the long-term security of the critically important Ogallala—and the farmers whose livelihoods depend on it.

Frequently Asked Questions
What is the estimated cost of this program?

Based on the budget for the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, the RRRI would require $25 million per year for 10-20 years to support the program’s staff and cover travel costs. This funding can be drawn from water-sustainability discretionary funds already allocated at USDA and DOI as well as FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program.

What existing technologies can promote sustainable groundwater management?

Publications from the Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project cite numerous examples of existing technologies that can promote sustainable groundwater management, including irrigating with recycled water (i.e., direct non-potable reuse) and shifting to dryland irrigation.

How does the hydrology of the Ogallala region lend itself to aquifer recharge?

The sandy soils of the High Plains are ideal for managed aquifer recharge as they allow for fast infiltration.

Why focus on the Ogallala Aquifer when groundwater depletion is an issue across the US?

With no existing federal regulation on groundwater use, the country needs a pilot program to demonstrate the effectiveness of an interstate groundwater use policy to create precedent for future policymaking and begin to optimize water use policies at such a large scale. The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest and most productive aquifer in the world and conserving the agriculture it supports is required for a sustainable future.

Why won’t the federal government just put a limit on groundwater pumping?

While the federal government has regulations in place dictating water quality through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, water-allocation policy is left up to the states. Between the eight states above the Ogallala Aquifer, there are four distinct doctrines that define groundwater law, some in direct conflict with one another. State authority over water resources makes it difficult for the federal government to implement mandatory groundwater conservation measures. Voluntary programs like RRRI are an effective mechanism to reach groundwater conservation goals without infringing on states’ water rights.

Establishing the AYA Research Institute: Increasing Data Capacity and Community Engagement for Environmental-Justice Tools


Environmental justice (EJ) is a priority issue for the Biden Administration, yet the federal government lacks capacity to collect and maintain data needed to adequately identify and respond to environmental-justice (EJ) issues. EJ tools meant to resolve EJ issues — especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s EJSCREEN tool — are gaining national recognition. But knowledge gaps and a dearth of EJ-trained scientists are preventing EJSCREEN from reaching its full potential. To address these issues, the Administration should allocate a portion of the EPA’s Justice40 funding to create the “AYA Research Institute”, a think tank under EPA’s jurisdiction. Derived from the Adinkra symbol, AYA means “resourcefulness and defiance against oppression.” The AYA Research Institute will functionally address EJSCREEN’s limitations as well as increase federal capacity to identify and effectively resolve existing and future EJ issues.

Challenge and Opportunity

Approximately 200,000 people in the United States die every year of pollution-related causes. These deaths are concentrated in underresourced, vulnerable, and/or minority communities. The EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1992 to address systematic disparities in environmental outcomes among different communities. The primary tool that OEJ relies on to consider and address EJ concerns is EJSCREEN. EJSCREEN integrates a variety of environmental and demographic data into a layered map that identifies communities disproportionately impacted by environmental harms. This tool is available for public use and is the primary screening mechanism for many initiatives at state and local levels. Unfortunately, EJSCREEN has three major limitations:

  1. Missing indicators. EJSCREEN omits crucial environmental indicators such as drinking-water quality and indoor air quality. OEJ states that these crucial indicators are not included due to a lack of resources available to collect underlying data at the appropriate quality, spatial range, and resolution. 
  2. Small areas are less accurate. There is considerable uncertainty in EJSCREEN environmental and demographic estimates at the census block group (CBG) level. This is because (i) EJSCREEN’s assessments of environmental indicators can rely on data collected at scales less granular than CBG, and (ii) some of EJSCREEN’s demographic estimates are derived from surveys (as opposed to census data) and are therefore less consistent.
  3. Deficiencies in a single dataset can propagate across EJSCREEN analyses. Environmental indicators and health outcomes are inherently interconnected. This means that subpar data on certain indicators — such as emissions levels, ambient pollutant levels in air, individual exposure, and pollutant toxicity — can compromise the reliability of EJSCREEN results on multiple fronts. 

These limitations must be addressed to unlock the full potential of EJSCREEN as a tool for informing research and policy. More robust, accurate, and comprehensive environmental and demographic data are needed to power EJSCREEN. Community-driven initiatives are a powerful but underutilized way to source such data. Yet limited time, funding, rapport, and knowledge tend to discourage scientists from engaging in community-based research collaborations. In addition, effectively operationalizing data-based EJ initiatives at a national scale requires the involvement of specialists trained at the intersection of EJ and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Unfortunately, relatively poor compensation discourages scientists from pursuing EJ work — and scientists who work on other topics but have interest in EJ can rarely commit the time needed to sustain long-term collaborations with EJ organizations. It is time to augment the federal government’s past and existing EJ work with redoubled investment in community-based data and training.

Plan of Action

EPA should dedicate $20 million of its Justice40 funding to establish the AYA Research Institute: an in-house think tank designed to functionally address EJSCREEN’s limitations as well as increase federal capacity to identify and effectively resolve existing and future EJ issues. The word AYA is the formal name for the Adinkra symbol meaning “resourcefulness and defiance against oppression” — concepts that define the fight for environmental justice.

The Research Institute will comprise three arms. The first arm will increase federal EJ data capacity through an expert advisory group tasked with providing and updating recommendations to inform federal collection and use of EJ data. The advisory group will focus specifically on (i) reviewing and recommending updates to environmental and demographic indicators included in EJSCREEN, and (ii) identifying opportunities for community-based initiatives that could help close key gaps in the data upon which EJSCREEN relies.

The second arm will help grow the pipeline of EJ-focused scientists through a three-year fellowship program supporting doctoral students in applied research projects that exclusively address EJ issues in U.S. municipalities and counties identified as frontline communities. The program will be three years long so that participants are able to conduct much-needed longitudinal studies that are rare in the EJ space. To be eligible, doctoral students will need to (i) demonstrate how their projects will help strengthen EJSCREEN and/or leverage EJSCREEN insights, and (ii) present a clear plan for interacting with and considering recommendations from local EJ grassroots organization(s). Selected students will be matched with grassroots EJ organizations distributed across five U.S. geographic regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West) for mentorship and implementation support. The fellowship will support participants in achieving their academic goals while also providing them with experience working with community-based data, building community-engagement and science-communication skills, and learning how to scale science policymaking from local to federal systems. As such, the fellowship will help grow the pipeline of STEM talent knowledgeable about and committed to working on EJ issues in the United States.

The third arm will embed EJ expertise into federal decision making by sponsoring a permanent suite of very dominant resident staff, supported by “visitors” (i.e., the doctoral fellows), to produce policy recommendations, studies, surveys, qualitative analyses, and quantitative analyses centered around EJ. This model will rely on the resident staff to maintain strong relationships with federal government and extragovernmental partners and to ensure continuity across projects, while the fellows provide ancillary support as appropriate based on their skills/interest and Institute needs. The fellowship will act as a screening tool for hiring future members of the resident staff.

Taken together, these arms of the AYA Research Institute will help advance Justice40’s goal of improving training and workforce development, as well as the Biden Administration’s goal of better preparing the United States to adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change. The AYA Research Institute can be launched with $10 million: $4 million to establish the fellowship program with an initial cohort of 10 doctoral students (receiving stipends commensurate with typical doctoral stipends at U.S. universities), and $6 million to cover administrative expenses and staff expert salaries. Additional funding will be needed to maintain the Institute if it proves successful after launch. Funding for the Institute could come from Justice40 funds allocated to EPA. Alternatively, EPA’s fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget for science and technology clearly states a goal of prioritizing EJ — funds from this budget could hence be allocated towards the Institute using existing authority. Finally, EPA’s FY 2022 budget for environmental programs and management dedicates approximately $6 million to EJSCREEN — a portion of these funds could be reallocated to the Institute as well.


The Biden-Harris Administration is making unprecedented investments in environmental justice. The AYA Research Institute is designed to be a force multiplier for those investments. Federally sponsored EJ efforts involve multiple programs and management tools that directly rely on the usability and accuracy of EJSCREEN. The AYA Research Institute will increase federal data capacity and help resolve the largest gaps in the data upon which EJSCREEN depends in order to increase the tool’s effectiveness. The Institute will also advance data-driven environmental-justice efforts more broadly by (i) growing the pipeline of EJ-focused researchers experienced in working with data, and (ii) embedding EJ expertise into federal decision making. In sum, the AYA Research Institute will strengthen the federal government’s capacity to strategically and meaningfully advance EJ nationwide. 

Frequently Asked Questions
How does this proposal align with grassroots EJ efforts?

Many grassroots EJ efforts are focused on working with scientists to better collect and use data to understand the scope of environmental injustices. The AYA Research Institute would allocate in-kind support to advance such efforts and would help ensure that data collected through community-based initiatives is used as appropriate to strengthen federal decision-making tools like EJSCREEN.

How does this proposal align with the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) recently announced by the Biden administration?

EJSCREEN and CEJST are meant to be used in tandem. As the White House explains, “EJSCREEN and CEJST complement each other — the former provides a tool to screen for potential disproportionate environmental burdens and harms at the community level, while the latter defines and maps disadvantaged communities for the purpose of informing how Federal agencies guide the benefits of certain programs, including through the Justice40 Initiative.” As such, improvements to EJSCREEN will inevitably strengthen deployment of CEJST.

Has a think tank ever been embedded in a federal government agency before?

Yes. Examples include the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the Asian-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Both entities have been successful and serve as primary research facilities.

What criteria would the AYA Research Institute use to evaluate doctoral students who apply to its fellowship program?

To be eligible for the fellowship program, applicants must have completed one year of their doctoral program and be current students in a STEM department. Fellows must propose a research project that would help strengthen EJSCREEN and/or leverage EJSCREEN insights to address a particular EJ issue. Fellows must also clearly demonstrate how they would work with community-based organizations on their proposed projects. Priority would be given to candidates proposing the types of longitudinal studies that are rare but badly needed in the EJ space. To ensure that fellows are well equipped to perform deep community engagement, additional selection criteria for the AYA Research Institute fellowship program could draw from the criteria presented in the rubric for the Harvard Climate Advocacy Fellowship.

What can be done to avoid politicizing the AYA Research Institute, and to ensure the Institute’s longevity across administrations?

A key step will be grounding the Institute in the expertise of salaried, career staff. This will offset potential politicization of research outputs.

What is the existing data the EJSCREEN is using?

EJSCREEN 2.0 is largely using data from the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, as well as many other sources (e.g., the Department of Transportation (DOT) National Transportation Atlas Database, the Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) modeling system, etc.) The EJSCREEN Technical Document explicates the existing data sources that EJSCREEN relies on.

7. What are the demographic and environmental indicators of interest included in EJSCREEN?

The demographic indicators are: people of color, low income, unemployment rate, linguistic isolation, less than high school education, under age 5 and over age 64. The environmental indicators are: particulate matter 2.5, ozone, diesel particulate matter, air toxics cancer risk, air toxics respiratory hazard index, traffic proximity and volume, lead paint, Superfund proximity, risk management plan facility proximity, hazardous waste proximity, underground storage tanks and leaking UST, and wastewater discharge.

The Next Ten Years of Climate Policy, According to Our Experts

Two weeks ago, the IPCC released their most dire warning yet – that we have just three years to prevent the most catastrophic storms, natural disasters, and droughts human civilization might ever see. We are getting closer and closer to the temperature that scientists have warned us for decades would do irreversible damage to our societies and ecosystems.

But the role of scientists is not just one of town criers, warning us of what will come. Scientists are also activists taking fate into their own hands. Last week, scientists across the world staged sit-ins, held demonstrations, and handcuffed themselves to some of the worst climate offenders to send a bold message: the time for action is now.

As a science policy organization, we seek to bridge the gap between experts and policymakers. We have published dozens of proposals and policy memos outlining bold, perhaps even radical, climate policy ideas that would not only save the world, but will invigorate the U.S. and global economy with it.

Below, our experts, researchers, and staff share some of their thoughts on what the next ten years of climate policy will look like, how scientists can get involved in policymaking, and what they hope to see.

Matt Korda, Senior Research Associate and Project Manager, Nuclear Information Project

Climate change and nuclear weapons have a symbiotic relationship: each threat exacerbates the other. Climate change is setting the stage for conflict between nuclear-armed states, and a recent study suggests that even a regional nuclear war could cause mass global starvation for over a decade. Not to mention the fact that even during peacetime, decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have contaminated some of our planet’s ecosystems beyond repair, displacing entire communities—often communities of color—in the process. 

Given the interconnectedness of both the climate crisis and nuclear weapons, we can’t afford for these two existential issues to be tackled in silos. Progressive climate change policies should include demilitarization and disarmament provisions, and progressive nuclear policies should address the climate and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. With that in mind, nuclear disarmament activists and climate change activists are natural allies in the fight to mitigate global catastrophic risks. 

Ishan Sharma, Fellow and Policy Analyst, Technology & Innovation

The IPCC report is clear that a range of solutions is needed to reduce and remove carbon from the atmosphere, “an essential element of scenarios that limit warming to to 1.5℃ or likely below 2℃ by 2100”. 

Across buildings, transport, energy transformation, infrastructure, and industry sectors, climate solutions technologies abound. The question is how to move the needle on their technology readiness levels. Or, in other words, what will spur their adoption at scale?

Let’s start with creating the right liftoff conditions — climate solutions startups have long described the trouble of gaining access to funding given the large upfront costs of hardtech (when compared to software). As a result, many exciting ideas fail to cross the “Valley of Death” and achieve scaled adoption. 

But what if we employed new ways of de-risking investments into climate solutions startups that incentivized more capital flows? One example: committing to buy a certain technology in advance, or advanced market commitments (AMCs). AMCs were recently used in Operation Warp Speed to de-risk and galvanize Pfizer, Moderna, and other pharma companies’ investments to produce COVID-19 vaccines. Last week, an alliance of big tech companies under the organization Frontier poured $925 million towards carbon removal, including large portions towards AMCs because by  “committing to buy a product early, you can help bring it to market faster”.  

Fortunately, the White House Council on Environmental Quality is challenging each agency to leverage its purchasing power in each  sustainability plan, turning the federal government into a massive source of clean demand. 

There’s also the related problem of scaling this type of innovation across the United States. How do you encourage legacy energy communities to support these transitions into the green economy? One way is to create the right set of economic conditions that incentivizes — and provides for — well paying jobs in new growth sectors. 

Currently, there are only a handful of cities with the “industries and a solid base of human capital [to] keep attracting good employers and offering high wages … ecosystems form in these hot cities, complete with innovation companies, funding sources, highly educated workers and a strong service economy.” Spreading innovation to underleveraged regions is difficult for a number of reasons, including training a willing workforce and securing a viable investment ecosystem for startup liftoff. 

But if done right, it could be another answer to rising inflation, as it would bring new demand to “stone cold” markets and stabilize prices from the bottom up and middle out. 

Fortunately, nascent regional investment efforts like the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge and the Department of Energy’s Energy Program for Innovation Clusters seeks a holistic approach to green development, bringing breakthrough research happening in the labs, training workforces in the locality, empowering startup liftoff, and facilitating spillover economic benefits from climate solutions’ commercialization. Federal assets — from national labs to federally funded R&D at universities to manufacturing innovation institutes — should be brought to bear in supporting this innovation-cluster based approach. 

But part of this clean growth climate solution will require coupling our investments in cutting-edge R&D with our investments in manufacturing, in order to produce and commercialize these technologies at scale in the United States. Decades of underinvestment in manufacturing has sacrificed the art of “learning-by-building” — the substantial, value-add interactions that happen when manufacturers are seated at the table with designers. 

This is the reason why China-based companies own 80% of the solar panel market share, despite photovoltaic cells’ invention at Bell Labs in 1954. After heavily subsidizing the manufacturing of solar panels, China capitalized on the benefits of learning-by-building, perhaps the most important factor explaining the nearly 100% drop in PV cells’ module costs over the last 30 years. 

If America is going to lead on solving climate change with breakthrough R&D, we need to ensure we can produce the technologies at scale — lest we risk losing our competitive and economic advantage. But we also need to think seriously about the additional regulatory structures promoting oil and gas above clean growth expansion. 

One example is geothermal energy, which could have already supplied unlimited clean electricity for a cost of around 3¢/kWh, but progress in the field was stunted by entrepreneurial risks of dealing with permitting requirements at up to 2 years of approval timelines. This is despite the Energy Policy Act of 2005 granting oil and gas companies carveouts to perform the same type of drilling geothermal would need. What if we did the same, today, for geothermal? 

Another example is the well-known fossil fuels subsidies, which have been rather hard to kill. These subsidies are responsible for as much as 68-78% of the average rate of return for fossil fuel endeavors. But what might a targeted decoupling look like for fossil fuels subsidies? Several researchers have investigated this very question, identifying which are the most high-leverage subsidies to kill. At first place is the intangible drilling costs subsidy (IDC), which “increases [the] U.S.-wide average IRR by 11 and 8 percentage points for oil and gas fields, respectively.” I’m not the first to advocate for the removal of this subsidy, it’s been decades in the making, but those before me underscore the crucial need for attention focused on high-leverage subsidies — chipping away bit-by-bit at the unnecessary market advantage oil and gas has received for nearly a century. 

Erica Goldman, Director of Science Policy

My back porch looks out into an urban forest in Silver Spring, MD, actually just a few miles from where Rachel Carson lived and wrote Silent Spring. Over the past few weeks, like all over the DC region, the bare trees behind my house bloomed brilliant pinks and whites and purples, and then went quickly green. Now, the forest gets noisier each day – birds in the morning, frogs and cicadas at night, occasional owls and foxes in intermittent conversation.

Most years, I don’t pay attention to how fast all of this happens. But this year I noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds for change, sudden inflection points that make the incremental, exponential. With climate change, these tipping points often signal catastrophe – melting glaciers, intensifying storms, and rising seas. But what if tipping points are the key to positive change as well, and targeted interventions can bring larger than expected returns?

Last week, the California Air Resources Board proposed to raise the sale of new cars that are electric, hydrogen-powered or plug-in hybrids to 100% by 2035. In late 2021, the Federal Sustainability Plan issued the ambitious target for the whole-of-government fleet to be fully electric by the same year. Meanwhile, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law ​​allocates $21 billion over the next five years for the Office of Clean Energy Demonstration, which could dramatically accelerate the pace of deployment of key low-carbon technologies like clean hydrogen, advanced nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) from industrial facilities and power plants. With these kinds of targeted interventions, strategic subsidies, and technologies ready for lift off, might these positive climate tipping points be within reach?

Scientists think maybe. An article in Nature last week showed that the climate pledges made by nations at the COP26 meeting could in fact ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 ºC before 2100 — but only if backed up by short-term policies. Meanwhile, other researchers are studying how to intentionally  trigger positive tipping points through social, technological and ecological innovations, policy interventions, public investment, private investment, broadcasting public information, and behavioral nudges. 

Taken together, my sense is that positive tipping points give us agency and help “unlock paralysis by complexity,” transcending incrementalism and offering “plausible grounds for hope.” We know what nature is capable of, if we can get smart about how to jumpstart recovery and then get out of the way.