LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s record wildfires pose a problem for the state’s plan to use its forests to help offset climate-warming emissions.
It is unclear how much California’s plan for becoming carbon-neutral by 2045 depends on its forests. But as climate change fuels increasingly frequent and intense blazes, any plan that relies on keeping forests healthy could be frustrated.
California’s climate-change agenda is among the most ambitious in the United States, but thanks to wildfires, forests are “part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Edie Chang, a deputy executive director at the California Air Resources Board (CARB), told Reuters.
With global efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels falling short of what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, scientists believe capturing climate pollution already emitted will be necessary to limit warming. Maintaining the health of forests, which suck up and store carbon, are among those solutions.
The most populous U.S. state has suffered five of its six largest wildfires in history this year as heat waves and dry-lightning sieges coincided with drier conditions that climate scientists blame on global warming.
This year, a record 4 million acres in California have burned, releasing decades of stored carbon into the atmosphere. That amounts to more than 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, assuming the scorched acres held similar amounts of carbon as acres burned in previous years, said Emily McGlynn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Davis.
That is equivalent to nearly half the state’s annual human-caused emissions.
And that is just for 2020.
Between 2001 and 2014, California’s forests and natural lands lost an amount of carbon equivalent to 511 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, McGlynn said – roughly the same amount emitted by the state’s transportation sector over three years, according to data from the state’s Air Resources Board.
Wildfires accounted for three-quarters of that carbon release from forests, while logging and tree pruning as part of forest management made up the rest, state records show. While some amount of fire is needed for maintaining healthy forests, scientists say the size and frequency of recent fires may be pushing natural systems out of balance https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKCN26C30W.
“California is kind of ground zero for some of the most extreme climate impacts,” McGlynn said.
Alarmed by the scale of destruction, California Governor Gavin Newsom this week asked state agencies to craft policies toward storing more carbon on natural lands, calling that “a critical part of the climate change conversation.”
The state next year will implement changes to its cap-and-trade program that could boost the market price for carbon credits and spark more private investment in improving forests in California.
Under the cap-and-trade scheme large emitters face a carbon limit and can buy allowances if they exceed it. Companies can currently use forest carbon credits to offset up to 8% of their greenhouse gas emissions.
However, conservation projects covered by the program to date account for only about 1.5% of California’s 33