Making Real Progress, with Real Benefits, on Climate in Rural America
Rural Americans are on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. Every instance of severe flood, drought, fire, or shift in the growing season shows how exposed rural communities and economies are to the impact of extreme weather. These communities also have the opportunity to play a leading role in the solution. For example, agriculture and forestry account for a full 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. To make real progress on climate, rural communities have to be able to help lead the way.
Rural Americans know this. In polling One Country Project conducted with Third Way, we found that rural Americans acknowledge the climate threat and support action. But, that action needs to respect rural views and knowledge, focus on jobs, and include concrete actions that rural Americans can take in their own communities.
With climate driving much of the first year of the Biden agenda in Washington, what can policymakers do to put climate power in rural hands?
One thing Congress could do quickly would be to pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act. This bill is designed to expand opportunities for rural America to play a leading role in the transition to a clean energy economy by providing technical assistance to farmers and foresters that will allow them to participate in carbon credit markets. By doing so, the legislation would make it easier for rural communities to see real, direct economic benefits from sustainably managing their land and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This bill passed the Senate in June, and House action could send it to President Biden’s desk.
Policymakers should also look for opportunities to help rural communities harness the power of nature. Rural communities are connected to the land and understand what nature provides. It’s no surprise in our poll 77% of those surveyed supported incentives to place solar power on their roofs. Progress is already being made in this area as rural electric co-ops across the country embrace solar to spur clean energy development in their communities. Programs such as the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America provide funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for installing renewable energy systems or making energy-efficient equipment.
However, more can be done. The advancement of integrated solar roofing technology can help rural America tap into the benefits of solar power — including generating revenue for local businesses, slashing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating clean 21st century jobs. This new technique fully integrates the solar generating technology into roofing materials, as opposed to relying on separate racks and panels. For example, the solar laminate can be applied in the form of a shingle rather than a large, rigid panel that requires an external rack.
More than 5 million roofs are replaced every year in the U.S., and if just a fraction of those roof replacements were converted to solar roof installations, the country could nearly double its rooftop solar capacity in just two or three years. By directly integrating with a new roof, this technology could further accelerate deployment of solar solutions, provide work for small businesses and contractors, and support domestic manufacturing jobs while helping rural homeowners upgrade their homes. But for that to happen, Congress needs to expand the current solar investment tax credit (ITC) to include integrated solar roofing. The upcoming infrastructure package would provide a perfect opportunity to take this commonsense step to continue to drive a rural solar boom. Modernizing the ITC to include integrated solar roofing would provide another avenue for rural America to be a leader in the clean energy economy.
Finally, as eyes turn toward the next Farm Bill, Congress should adopt a rural climate mindset that prioritizes modernization and increased support for climate-forward practices, soil conservation, and climate conscious rural development.
A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the amount of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere reached its highest level ever in May 2021 — yet another indicator that there is an urgency to act when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. President Biden has recognized this and set the ambitious goal of achieving a zero-carbon power sector by 2035 as part of his strategy to achieve an economy-wide target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Taking this kind of ambitious action on climate change will require a comprehensive approach that involves all communities. Washington needs to remember that rural Americans are ready to lead — and give them tools to succeed.