Worsening California wildfires are a major carbon emissions problem

Worsening California wildfires are a major carbon emissions problem

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A new study puts some hard numbers on the climate impacts of California’s worsening wildfires, finding that the state’s 2020 blazes overwhelmed its recent emissions cuts.

Driving the news: The study, published in Environmental Pollution, is among the first to quantify the carbon emissions from California’s fires and the damage they are causing.

Zoom in: The 2020 fire season was record-setting, with 4.3 million acres burned. Five of the top 20 largest fires in state history occurred that year, including one so-called “gigafire” that burned more than 1 million acres.

Scientists used independent methods to estimate the wildfire-related carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions and found they were about double the state’s emissions reductions from 2003-2019.With fire-related emissions included, there was a 30% state emissions jump between 2019 and 2020.The research also estimates the cost associated with the added CO2 emissions, calculating about $7 billion in damage from added warming.Currently, the state does not include wildfire-related emissions when tracking progress toward its climate goals, but if it did, the study suggests, there might be even more of an incentive to reduce wildfire activity.What they’re saying: “Fire control policy can also be climate policy,” said study coauthor Amir Jina of the University of Chicago, via email.

Yes, but: While forests may eventually regrow, this takes decades and is not guaranteed to yield an equal or greater amount of carbon absorbed, Jina said.

Plus, near-term emissions cuts are key to limiting the severity of global warming, Jina noted.

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