by Chris Gish, 2020 Summer Fellow at 350Vermont and University of Vermont ’21 Ecological Agriculture & Geology major

Spend any time lamenting ecological issues with activists, environmentalists or concerned folks, and the idea of putting a price on the environment invariably comes up.

“If only there was a price on carbon..”

 “We just need to factor environmental costs into the price of food, consumer goods, commodities, etc…” 

We are all familiar with this idea. As someone committed to really attending to the systemic, entangled mess of our socio-ecological problems, I tend to roll my eyes. Perhaps you do too.  Putting a price on the natural world doesn’t address the underlying systems of money and power driving planetary devastation, I tell myself. End of story. Let’s go do something outside of the machinations of the market. Right?

Under our default economic system, we don’t pay for most of the environmental damage we cause — drivers don’t pay for the consequences of their tailpipe emissions, and farms and municipal waste districts don’t pay for the excess phosphorus they emit to Lake Champlain. Even existing conservation programs, like USDA grants for farmers or rebates for energy efficiency, pay for specific practices without actually measuring (or pricing) how much these practices make a difference. 

Payment for Ecosystem Services would not itself put a price on carbon or any other pollutant, but it would offer a way to pay farmers and land managers for the ecosystem services their lands provide — things like carbon absorption in the soil and buffering surface water from pollution and erosion.

In Vermont, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) is an approach that seeks to address two of Vermont’s pressing environmental issues — rising carbon emissions and unsustainable phosphorus loads in water —  even as it offers an additional source of income to keep farms and working landscapes viable.

In the winter of 2019, the Vermont legislature mandated the creation of a Soil Conservation Practices and Payment for Ecosystem Services working group. This Spring, the group changed its name to the Payment for Ecosystem Services and Soil Health working group and received funding for another year to study the specific pricing regimes and measurement technologies that could go into a state law.

Even though the Vermont Working Group sees little precedent to base their proposal on, Payment for Ecosystem Services is a burgeoning area of interest and potential profit-making. Nationally, a bi-partisan alliance of senators introduced the “Growing Climate Solutions Act” in June, which would mandate that the USDA help farmers participate in private carbon markets. Private carbon markets already exist in many forms around the world. Microsoft, Cisco, Google and many other tech giants have invested billions of dollars into ecosystem sensing that would be necessary to implement PES. Clearly, there is a lot of money to be made with PES — a fact that should (rightly) set off some alarm bells for anyone concerned about finding real, just solutions to our environmental challenges.

Even so, I think we cannot afford to ignore Payment for Ecosystem Services. It will just take a lot of attention and activism to ensure that Vermont designs a system that is just and effective.

The national “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” is emblematic of many of the shortcuts, industry handouts and ineffectiveness of false climate solutions. In the first place, it is offered instead of any comprehensive and effective climate change legislation. Instead of proposing a bill that might disturb the monetary interests of big polluters, Senators like Mike Braun, Lindsey Graham and Debbie Stabenow want to “confront” climate change by just supporting voluntary programs. The private carbon markets that it relies on have already existed for more than a decade and have not done anything to lower overall emissions — although they are instrumental to big brands in projecting an ‘eco-friendly’ appearance. It does not reward farmers who were already practicing the most regenerative and climate-friendly approaches, since payments are just based on any changes in carbon absorption in a farmer’s soils. It likewise appears that large farms will have by far the easiest access to payments through the GCSA, (again, hence the support from McDonalds, and many other agroindustrial corporations).

The Vermont working group, luckily, seems more mindful of avoiding these pitfalls.

Conceives of a basket of services rather than narrowly paying for an ecosystem good. Hopes to act at the landscape level rather than the field level. Has the potential to further interesting and much-needed connections between soil health, carbon absorption and nutrient (e.g. phosphorous) retention. 

To make these connections, the Vermont initiative will be relying on emerging algorithmic and remote sensing technologies to connect the dots between measurable parameters and this basket of desired services, and administer payments at the landscape level. As Heather Darby, a UVM soil health specialist who led one of the PES working group webinars, noted, none of these tools or the research basis to back them up currently exist. Abe Collins of Landstream LLC (and the subject of another of these webinars) called for the development of new landscape-level tools to guide payments to farmers and whole watersheds. 

From a political economic perspective, there are concerns that, because of the extensive and uncertain technology needed to facilitate it, a Payment for Ecosystem services proposal would end up benefiting a complex of government agencies and private consultants more than the farmers themselves. Darby admits that a central concern of a PES program is whether, given the substantial costs involved, it would be possible to price it at a level that actually incentivizes change but still benefits farmers.

It is heartening that Vermont legislators have given some serious thought (and funding) to Payment for Ecosystem Services. As environmentalists (and given realities of corporate control and a total failure to actually reduce emissions on a global level) it could be easy to decry PES in any form as a false and worthless solution.  As scholars like Donna Haraway remind us, though, we cannot afford not to enroll specific, situated technologies to help mend our relations to nature. It could make a real difference in helping some farmers  transition to more regenerative practices, and aiding our understanding of landscape level ecosystem health.

At every step of the way, however, we must resist the idea of PES as an easy “techno-fix”, or a replacement for comprehensive climate action and socio-ecological reform.

Algorithms, like those that would be at the center of Payment for Ecosystem Services, will never be ‘objective’ or accurate. They will always need to be politicized and fought over by real people. This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the PES debate — it doesn’t excuse any of the organizing and activism needed to make just relations with the natural world. Ultimately, it is people power, and the collective mobilization that groups like 350 are fighting for that will change the world — not isolated, heroic interventions on the part of a few experts.

But it also does not excuse the deeper work of transitioning our food system toward more local, regenerative and deeply sustainable models.  Our transition, more than anything, needs people who are mobilized and actively participating in the food system and climate justice — not another program set down from a few state-level experts that promises simple “win-wins” and does not disturb power relations or the socio-ecological status quo.


Further Reading

You can see all the information  compiled so far by the Vermont PES working Group here.

And an issue paper from the UVM Gund Institute provides a dry but detailed assessment of PES in Vermont.