California wildfires wipe out 18 years of CO2e removal efforts • The Register

Researchers studying the impact of California’s record-breaking 2020 wildfire season have uncovered some disturbing evidence. The fires in that single year wiped out all of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions since 2003 by a factor of two.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Chicago reported the findings in a brief paper that examined three fire emission estimates to arrive at their 2020 wildfire emission figure: 127 million tonnes (mmt) Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e).

Between 2003 and 2019, the researchers said, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in California fell by 13 percent, or about 65 million metric tons of CO2e. Those reductions are largely due to a switch to renewable energy and the adoption of other forms of emissions reduction by the power generation sector, the team said.

To put that 127 mmt in perspective, California’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were 418 mmt CO2e. If emissions from wildfires are included, “this amounts to a 30 percent increase in total emissions from all sectors,” the researchers said.

The synopsis of their report is strong:

“Essentially, the danger is that the positive effects of all this hard work over nearly two decades will be swept aside by the smoke produced in a single year of record-breaking wildfires,” said lead author Dr. Michael Jerett.

An emerging “industry” to consider

Wildfires emitted so much greenhouse gas in 2020 that wildfires ranked a close second when considered alongside other polluting industries in California. Only the transport industry in the country emits more greenhouse gases.

If one calculates the average of the forest fire emissions over the last five years, the accidental releases of CO2e “ranks above recent individual contributors from the commercial and residential, agriculture, recycling and waste, and high GWP sectors,” the researchers noted.

Although California’s wildfires have scuppered the state’s efforts to take the lead in curbing climate change, Jerrett said they don’t get attention even though they emit the same or greater amounts of greenhouse gases.

“Although wildfires are to some extent natural occurrences, human activities contribute to making wildfires ‘unnatural disasters’ through human-caused climate change and development…in fire-prone areas,” Jerrett said.

The study did not account for the growth of new vegetation in fire-swept areas, meaning it is an upper bound on potential greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires. Even if vegetation grows back in burned regions, the researchers believe it will not happen fast enough “to meet the short- and medium-term emissions targets needed to exceed the 1.5-degreeC threshold.” to prevent”.

If the world is to stay on track to meet climate targets, the researchers conclude, it’s time to track emissions from wildfires alongside other key sectors such as transportation, industry and power generation. As the paper notes, 18 of the 20 most destructive fires in California have happened since 2000, and five of them in 2020 alone. ® California wildfires wipe out 18 years of CO2e removal efforts • The Register

Rick Schindler

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