California needs forests to fight climate change, but they are going up in smoke
By Nichola Groom
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California's record forest fires pose a problem for the state's plan to use its forests to offset climate warming emissions.
It is unclear to what extent California's plan to become carbon neutral by 2045 depends on its forests. However, as climate change burns more frequently and intensely, any plan based on maintaining the health of forests could be thwarted.
California's climate change agenda is among the most ambitious in the United States, but thanks to forest fires, forests are "part of the problem, not part of the solution," according to Edie Chang, deputy chief executive of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), told Reuters.
With global efforts to reduce the use of non-compliant fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of climate change, scientists believe that tracking the pollution already emitted will be necessary to limit warming. These solutions include maintaining the health of forests that absorb and store carbon.
The most populous U.S. state suffered five of its six largest forest fires in history this year, as heat waves and dry lightning sieges coincided with drier conditions, climate researchers attribute to global warming.
That year California burned a record 4 million acres, releasing decades of stored carbon into the atmosphere. That's more than 200 million tons of carbon dioxide, assuming the mornings burned contained similar amounts of carbon as the mornings burned in previous years, said Emily McGlynn, an environmental economist at the University of California at Davis.
This equates to almost half of the state's annual man-made emissions.
And that's only for 2020.
Between 2001 and 2014, California's forests and natural areas lost a lot of carbon equivalent to 511 million tons of CO2 emissions, McGlynn said - roughly the same amount that the state's transportation sector emitted over three years, according to the state's Air Resources Blackboard.
Forest fires accounted for three quarters of this carbon release from forests, while logging and pruning for forest management accounted for the rest, according to government records. While a certain amount of fire is required to maintain healthy forests, the size and frequency of recent fires could unbalance natural systems. Https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKCN26C30W.
"California is kind of ground zero for some of the most extreme climate impacts," said McGlynn.
FORESTS OFFSET EMISSIONS
California Governor Gavin Newsom was alarmed this week by the extent of the destruction and called on state agencies to develop guidelines for storing more carbon on natural land. This is "a critical part of the conversation about climate change".
The state will make changes to its cap-and-trade program over the next year that could raise the market price for carbon credits and spark more private investment in improving California's forests.
As part of the cap-and-trade system, large emitters are exposed to a carbon limit and can buy certificates if they exceed it. Companies can currently use forest carbon credits to offset up to 8% of their greenhouse gas emissions.
However, previous conservation projects covered by the program account for only about 1.5% of California's 33 million forested acres, or approximately 490,000 acres. Since the program was launched in 2013, these projects have received loans to offset 26 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This corresponds to about 6% of the total annual emissions of the state.
California's market prices 1 tonne of carbon at around $ 17 - not enough to encourage landowners to get land instead of developing it, said Noah Deich, executive director of Carbon 180, a nonprofit that advocates for practices which remove carbon from the atmosphere.
"The goal of this CO2 compensation program was never primarily to create incentives for large-scale conservation and / or restoration of forests," said Deich, but to make it cheaper for the emitters to meet their upper limits and trade obligations.
If the state's carbon price of around $ 17 per tonne were applied to this year's estimated forest fire emissions, it would give a potential carbon market value of around $ 3.4 billion in smoke.
However, most of the areas burned this year are not part of the cap-and-trade program, which serves California-based companies, but instead includes conservation projects outside of the state. Next year, California will cap contributions from outside of the state projects to ensure that the offset program benefits Californians directly. However, starting next year, companies will only be able to offset up to 4% of their emissions with these projects.
Since 2018, another wild year of forest fires, the state government has tried to help private companies reduce the risk of forest fires by collecting forest waste for commercial purposes such as fuels or construction products. An August report from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggested that 800,000 acres of California forests could be beneficially treated each year.
California had developed a forest management plan for state-owned land, but it was never finalized as the Newsom government said it was not ambitious enough and failed to take into account that the federal government owns about 60% of the forests, said CARB spokesman Stanley Jung.
According to an analysis https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-wildfires-forests-insight/california-outpaced-trumps-forest-service-in, the state already spends more than the federal government on the preservation of forests -wildfire-prevention-work-data-idUSKCN26E2QO of the latest data from Reuters.
In August, California announced an agreement with the US Forest Service to reduce forest fire risk, in part through the use of controlled burns and other means, to clean up 1 million acres of deadwood and other debris each year by 2025. The deal also aims to develop markets for wood biomass and a comprehensive statewide forest management plan that will last 20 years.
The plan specifically aims to protect large trees that have been absorbing and storing carbon over hundreds of years.
"We need to be able to grow an entire infrastructure," said Jessica Morse, assistant secretary of forest resource management for the California Natural Resources Agency.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Matthew Lewis)
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