Wildfires are becoming a massive threat to California’s progress in reducing greenhouse gases as last year wildfires raged from Paradise to Malibu were the most destructive fire season on record, report says.
The eruption of blazes was one of the worst for the climate. In 2018, 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and more released by fires into the atmosphere, which is the maximum in a decade and slightly behind the two most massive wildfires in the modern history of 2008.
A San Francisco based organization released a report on Tuesday where estimates of state emissions are highlighted and identified the biggest obstacles that are standing between California and its ambitious climate goals, including rising pollution from wildfires, transportation, and landfills.
The independent consulting firm Beacon Economics that prepared the report for the Next 10 think tank, describes a vicious circle showing air pollution from fires growing more intense and becoming devastating with the warming climate. It poses a threat to the state’s progress in reducing emissions of greenhouse gas.
According to the report, even though California has successfully reduced carbon pollution, meeting its 2020 target four years early, “these achievements were eclipsed several times over by the 2018 wildfires, which produced more than nine times more emissions than were reduced in 2017.”
“As the wildfire seasons grow longer and our lands grow drier, managing this threat will be critical to our climate success,” F. Noel Perry, the founder of Next 10, wrote in the report.
However, as per state climate regulators, comparing the carbon released by wildfires with the emissions from burning fossil fuels was misleading, which are two completely different types of pollution. The Air Resources Board tracks wildfire emissions in an unregulated separate inventory for ecosystems, soil, and other sectors.
“The carbon stored in wildfires is part of the natural carbon cycle; emissions from fossil fuels are the result of pulling carbon out of the ground that otherwise would not be there, and pumping it into the atmosphere,” said Stanley Young, an Air Resources Board spokesman.
As per Young, the state is working on measures for reducing the severity of wildfires as well as ensuring that forests can store more carbon, “turning to a broad new set of forest management practices that will help with wildlands emissions.”
Adam Fowler, research director at Beacon Economics, thinks that tracking wildfire emissions should be separate from other greenhouse gases. However, it’s an essential comparison to him that shows one bad fire season can wipe out years of work to reduce carbon from the state’s economy.
Although wildfires would happen naturally, even without human influence, Fowler noted, “as these continue to get worse, there is some percentage of that emissions total that we can hold ourselves accountable for.”
According to the report, huge blazes also threaten the role of California’s forests as carbon “sinks” that withdraw planet-warming emissions from the atmosphere. The report also suggests that in 2017, with the recent increase in wildfires, “the state’s forests may have acted as a net source for carbon emissions.”
The California Green Innovation Index that analyses key measures of environmental progress based on the annual inventory of the Air Resources Board shows emissions declining in recent years after reaching its peak in 2004.
The states’ reduction of pollution slowed to 1.2% in 2017 compared with 2.8% in 2016 as per the most recent data. California will be decades late in meeting its ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gases 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 if it sticks to its current pace, according to the report.
The state should increase those reductions threefold and more, to an average of 4.5% annually, to meet that goal on time, the report found.
“We’re going to need major policy breakthroughs and deep structural changes if we’re going to deliver the much steeper emissions reductions required in the years ahead,” Perry said.
A 2017 plan of the state’s Air Resources Board “lays out a cost-effective, technologically feasible path” for the 2030 target. It includes measures for transformation of the state’s vehicle fleet, reducing the amount of driving and strengthening the industry regulations.
“But it is a plan and we need to make sure the policies and necessary transformations identified in it are actually happening,” Young, the air board spokesman, said.
A professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, Michael Kleeman, who was not involved in the report, said that comparing wildfire emissions to regulated sectors helps to put the numbers in perspective. “But I wouldn’t use that comparison to conclude that the state reduction efforts have no value.”
“The wildfires had many catastrophic effects and the release of carbon is definitely one of those bad outcomes,” Kleeman said. “But a significant fraction of that carbon should be drawn back into the regrowing forest over the long run. The wildfires definitely do not diminish the positive aspects of California’s other greenhouse gas mitigation efforts.”
Wildfires are not the state’s only obstacle.
The report states that because of the success in reducing carbon emissions from power generation, there is a lack of progress in cleaning up pollution from transportation, buildings, and industry.
California’s electricity sector was the only sector of the state’s economy that has seen “continuous and significant improvement in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” since 2000, the report stated.
Californians’ practice to waste more and recycle less increased landfill emissions each year since 2004 and being unable to send recyclables to China and other foreign markets, it becomes a challenge for California.
The state’s leading source of emissions is pollution from transportation that has been rising in recent years and remains the biggest obstacle to hit the target of carbon neutrality by mid-century. Californians own vehicles more, driving more, and vehicle miles are on the rise.
As per Young, a recent executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, and allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars by the state to the purchase of zero-emission cars and trucks from its cap-and-trade program are “examples of California’s full-throated commitment to transforming the transportation sector.”
California is the world’s fifth-largest economy, but it ranks as the 19th-biggest polluter globally. It emits more greenhouse gas compared to France or Thailand but less than Australia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, according to the report.
“Every choice we make about how to use our land, power our buildings and travel makes a difference,” Fowler said. “We’re slowly changing an entire economy away from that fossil fuel backbone, and it takes a lot of people rowing in the same direction.”