California wildfires cancel out nearly two decades of emissions reductions

Fires burned more than 4 million acres, emitting twice as much greenhouse gas the state’s total reductions over 18 years.
Trees burning as a result of the Beckwourth Complex fire in California on July 9, 2021

California’s record-breaking wildfire season in 2020 essentially nullified nearly two decades’ worth of greenhouse gas emission reductions, according to a new study.

The record-breaking wildfire season, which resulted in more than 4 million acres burned, emitted twice as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as the state’s total reductions over 18 years, a new study published in the journal of Environmental Pollution.

“Wildfire emissions in 2020 essentially negate 18 years of reductions in GHG emissions from other sectors,” the study’s authors concluded.

The study highlights that between 2003 and 2019, California’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 13%, “largely driven by reductions from the electric power generation sector.” But the 2020 fire season alone is “two times higher than California’s total GHG emissions reductions,” researchers found.

Researchers also discovered that wildfire greenhouse gas emissions are the second “most important source in the state” after transportation and one that “appears likely to grow with future climate change.” Between 2000 and 2019, the California Air Resources Board that 41% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory was from transportation.

A spokesperson for CARB told the Los Angeles Times that the agency does not consider wildfire emissions in assessing progress toward greenhouse gas targets because “the targets are specific to human-caused emissions.” He told the Times that this could soon change, however, because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said all emissions must be considered to achieve carbon neutrality.

California officials have acknowledged that climate change is fueling more intense fire seasons across the state. According to Cal Fire, 15 of the state’s top 20 most destructive wildfires have occurred since 2015.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the legislature have prioritized legislation aimed at curbing the impacts of climate change in the Golden State in recent years. During the most recent session, the governor signed a law requiring California to reach “net zero greenhouse gas emissions” no later than 2045. CARB also announced earlier this year that the state will ban the sale of most gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

The study concluded that while wildfire emissions are not routinely reported alongside other emissions sources, “it is still important to track these emissions to ensure near and medium-term emission reduction targets are met.” Researchers also noted that forest management practices that focus heavily on fire suppression than prevention “also likely increases the risk of large, destructive wildfires.”

The 2022-2023 state budget included $1.2 billion over two years for wildfire resilience projects, which came on top of a $1.5 billion investment in the 2021-2022 budget.