Oct 18, 2022 - Energy & Environment

California's climate goals are going up in smoke: study

Illustration of the shape of California with smoke rising from it

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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