California wildfires offset greenhouse gas reductions

According to researchers from UCLA and the University of Chicago, nearly two decades of efforts by Californians to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide that warms the planet may have been wiped out by a single devastating year of wildfires.

The state’s record-breaking 2020 fire season that saw more than 4 million hectares burn, has emitted nearly double the amount of greenhouse gases emitted since 2003 compared to the total amount of carbon dioxide reductions, according to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Researchers estimated that about 127 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent were released from the fires, compared to about 65 million tonnes of reductions achieved over the previous 18 years.

“If we look at the contribution of the 2020 wildfires, it becomes almost like a new emissions sector in the economy,” said Michael Jerrett, professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and lead author of the research. “Really, we’re doubling the reductions.”

The results challenge the notion that emissions from wildfires should be viewed differently than emissions from tailpipes, industry and other sources because forests eventually grow back, Jerrett said. In fact, the study found that wildfires were the second most important source of planet-warming gases in 2020 after transport, ahead of industry and power generation.

He said that’s the essence of the study’s title, Up In Smoke, because “many of the hard-won gains in the fight against climate change could be wiped out if we don’t start changing the way we manage forests.” manage the interface between human activity and the wildland-urban interface, and really start tracking those emissions more carefully and comparing them to other key sources, so we don’t unknowingly think we’re meeting our climate goals when we’re not .”

Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said the agency doesn’t consider wildfire emissions when evaluating its progress on greenhouse gas targets because the targets are specific to man-made emissions. The approach is in line with legislative direction, he said, and is designed to ensure government targets and emissions reductions are comparable to other national inventories.

That’s about to change, however, as new guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has clarified that to achieve carbon neutrality, “all emission sources and sinks must be considered,” Clegern said.

He said the Air Resources Board is beginning a process to include emissions from wildfires in its 2022 “scope plan,” which focuses on achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.

“Our efforts have focused on reducing fossil fuel consumption because it is the direct cause of climate change. Wildfires, on the other hand, are part of the natural carbon cycle,” said Clegern. “However, we are concerned about the climate and public health impacts of wildfires and that climate change will only exacerbate these impacts in the future. So we are addressing it in the draft scoping plan and the state is driving action to both reduce wildfire emissions and improve forest health.”

This year, a Times report on the 2020 wildfire season found that it not only offset decades of pollution control efforts, but also contributed more than $19 billion in economic losses. Jerrett said that’s all the more reason to look at wildfires as part of the bigger picture.

“I think the only way we can deal with this effectively is to track these emissions very carefully, understand the magnitude of their impact in terms of economic costs and also the potential warming they could cause and they.” to include comparison with other sectors so that we can start making societal decisions that are much better informed than what we have been making up until now,” he said.

The study’s findings could have implications for global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, avoiding a rise in average global temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius is crucial, as a rise above that would have dire impacts on extreme weather events, infectious diseases, the economy, agriculture and many other sectors.

Forests have long played a role in this system, as large trees sequester carbon and help reduce some emissions. But California’s new breed of climate change-induced fires are burning hotter and faster than those of the past, sometimes slowing the regrowth process and even turning some areas of conifers into grasslands, shrubs and chaparral, the researchers said.

“Although wildfires are a natural feature of many ecosystems in California, the increase in severe and frequent wildfires has increased the possibility of altered ecosystems after the fire,” said Miriam Marlier, a professor at the Fielding School and a co-author of the study. “Even if long-term regrowth occurs, however, those occurring over the next 15 [to] 20 years will make it difficult to meet the emissions reduction targets needed to avert the IPCC advocated rise in average global temperature.”

Rajinder Sahota, deputy executive director of the Air Resources Board, discussed the findings of the study on KPCC’s AirTalk on Wednesday. She said California’s 2020 greenhouse gas goals, set in 2006, “are focused on the root cause of climate change, which is energy and the state’s burning of fossil fuels.”

“What we didn’t know then and what we’ve learned now is that climate impacts have accelerated,” Sahota said, noting that burning fossil fuels has helped intensify wildfires over the past decade. (According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, 14 of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have occurred since 2010.)

“So not only do we need to think about evolving how we set our goals beyond 2020… we also need to recognize that we are planning for energy and our forest sector in a changing landscape,” Sahota said.

The state is taking steps to achieve carbon neutrality in the coming decades, including banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom also called for more aggressive targets for greenhouse gas emissions, including an expansion of the current target of a 40% reduction to 55% by 2030.

But forest management will also play a significant role, particularly as a century of wildfire suppression has led to an unnatural accumulation of carbon in forests, which is released almost instantaneously during massive wildfires. The state has allocated billions in wildfire funding, including investments in forest management, fuel disruptions and community hardening.

Managing forests through mechanical thinning, mandated burning and other methods will make a difference, Jerrett said, especially as researchers and government agencies learn more about the role of wildfires in greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need to reconsider this conventional wisdom that wildfires are carbon neutral in the context of a climate crisis,” he said, especially “when we have so little time to hit critical targets.” California wildfires offset greenhouse gas reductions

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