Responses: Policies & Institutions

by Zixin Lu last modified Jun 10, 2016 04:17 PM
Because nitrogen emissions from agricultural sources are geographically dispersed, cannot be easily observed, and are difficult to precisely control, this problem presents unique challenges for effective policy design. A suite of integrated practice and policy solutions may be needed to achieve both adequate source control and mitigation of the existing N stock within reasonable time-frames. This chapter provides an overview of available policy instruments for non-point source pollution control and examines specific outcomes when these mechanisms have been implemented to control N pollution in practice. Policy characteristics are then organized into a coherent methodology for assessing candidate policies for controlling N emissions from agricultural sources in California.

Stakeholder Questions

Stakeholder-generated questions addressed in this chapter include the following:

  • How might policy be used more effectively to both monitor and address non-point source agricultural pollution?
  • What are the hurdles to having a coordinated and cohesive nitrogen policy across regulatory jurisdictions?
  • What would the impacts of policy regulating nitrogen use be on farm profits, food prices, and rural economic activity?

Main Messages

California’s long-term success in achieving environmental goals through regulation of the main sources of nitrogen pollution from combustion (tailpipes and smokestacks) is largely irrelevant to challenges of addressing numerous, spatially dispersed, highly variable, context-specific (“non-point”) sources of nitrogen pollution typical of agriculture.

Any successful strategy to reduce nitrogen emissions from agriculture must take a comprehensive approach to the most important forms of nitrogen leakage into the environment, particularly ammonia and nitrate, but also including nitrous oxide. Effort to control any one alone, while neglecting the others, is very likely to be counterproductive—“solving” one problem can worsen others.

There have been apparent improvements in the ability of producers to implement the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship in crop production: right amount, right time, right place, and right form. Overall, however, although technologies and practices that can reduce nitrogen pollution from agriculture certainly do exist, they typically are costly (in money and management) for farmers and ranchers; thus, voluntary adoption tends to be low.

It is well established that voluntary participation in best management practice (BMP) programs typically cannot achieve significant reductions in nitrogen pollution from agriculture.  

Dairy waste is a significant source of nitrogen pollution in California, both to water and to air. It is critical to develop and implement cost-effective polices to effectively reduce nitrogen pollution from dairy operations. The California Dairy Quality Assurance Program plays an important role in helping dairies comply with existing regulations. While not a panacea by any means, this is an example of how a voluntary, largely information-based educational program can play a supporting role to other environmental regulations.

Even if policies somehow could perfectly control nitrate leakages from farms and dairies starting immediately, California will be living with the consequences of past nitrate leakages to groundwater for decades to come. Thus, for communities where drinking water supplies are unsafe because of high nitrate concentrations, point-of-use treatment or some other approach will be needed in the short run in order to assure safe drinking water for all California communities.

There is very limited information on the magnitudes of economic benefits that would be achieved through reductions in nitrogen emissions. For this reason it is currently not possible to estimate the economically efficient level of nitrogen emissions—the level that balances marginal benefits and costs—nor the relative efficiency of policy instruments. However, it is possible to compare policy instruments in terms of cost to achieve desired emission levels.

Over the longer term, five types of policy instruments appear to be most promising: emission standards, emission charges, tradable emission permits, abatement subsidies, and auction-based abatement contracts. However, theory provides little guidance on which of these instruments would be most effective under specific circumstances. The general lack of evidence, rigorous experimentation, comparative study, or integrated assessment of the impact of alternative policy instruments for controlling nitrogen pollution from agriculture is a major barrier to development of sound policy.

Given the monitoring challenges presented by non-point source nitrogen pollution, and the importance of having adequate data to enforce pollution control policies, efforts should be made to develop the technologies and tools needed to acquire the necessary data and to appropriately model the movement of nitrogen in the environment. Doing so facilitates the transition of nitrogen from a non-point source problem to a more manageable point source problem. In addition, existing data from the diversity of monitoring sites and programs already operated by state and federal agencies need to be made more accessible and integrated with each other. Comprehensive integration,
transparent protocols, and evaluation of uncertainty are key characteristics of an effective statewide platform.

This assessment concludes that integrated policy solutions are needed to take advantage of existing technology and to develop new technologies and practices necessary to transition California to a sustainable nitrogen future. While a necessary step, design and implementation of an integrative strategy for nitrogen policy holds many challenges, including the need to fill key information gaps, address existing administrative rigidities, and identify conflicting policies.

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