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The Energy 202: California's fires are putting a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the air

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Californias unprecedented wildfires, driven by man-made climate change, are pumping the atmosphere with tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide that will only drive global temperatures higher. 

Two scientists estimate separately for The Energy 202 that the fires in California this year through mid-September burned enough forest to put about 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, into the air. For perspective, that's some 30 million tons more than the total CO2 emissions from providing power to the entire state. 

“Given that 2020 is really a record-setting year for California, its going to be quite off-the-charts compared to the observational period we have,” said Niels Andela, an atmospheric scientist at Cardiff University in Wales, stressing that his estimate of 91.2 million tons is preliminary given the limited data he has. “That would be my expectation.” 

The historically devastating fire season undercuts the state’s ambitious efforts to confront climate change. 

And it shows one of the cruel ironies of global warming — that the U.S. state arguably doing the most to combat climate change is still contributing so much more this year because its drought-stricken woodlands are prone to burn. 

The carbon emissions appear to be record-setting. 

Guido van der Werf, a wildfire emissions expert at Vrije University in Amsterdam who with Andela helps maintain the Global Fire Emissions Database, agreed that his estimate of 90 million metric tons released by fires burning up and down the state from Northern California to rural San Diego County is rough. 

But one thing is clear: “What is pretty certain is that this year beats the previous record in the satellite record (starting in 1997) … by a large margin,” van der Werf wrote in an email. 

Put another way, the carbon dioxide from California's recent fires added the equivalent of the total greenhouse gas emissions by some countries, such as Chile or Greece in 2018, according to data from the Global Carbon Atlas.

Andela and van der Werf separately came to their estimates using satellite data measuring heat from the fires. Andela said his estimate comes with substantial uncertainty because he is not yet taking other information, such as the acreage and type of vegetation burned, into account. 

California has long been a standard-bearer on clean energy.

The state requires all new homes to be built with solar panels, compels automakers to sell electric vehicles and has sued President Trumps administration more than 100 times over environmental issues. 

After more than a decade of a cap-and-trade program and other climate mandates, power plants providing electricity to California were responsible for releasing 62 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017, according to the California Air Resources Board. 

Thats about half of what the power plants emitted annually a decade before — a sign of progress for a state with ambitions to make its electric grid completely free of carbon emissions by 2045 using wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower. But those annual carbon dioxide emissions are surpassed by the estimated amount released by the explosion of forest fires in California this year. 

“When you look at what California has done with its cap-and-trade program, and other states efforts to address emissions, all the gains we’ve been seeing, frankly, literally went up in smoke this year,” said Travis Joseph, head of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland, Ore.-based group that represents mills, manufacturers and purchasers of timber from public land in California and other Western states.

Parts of California burned by this year’s fires will take decades to recover. 

Periodic wildfires, which clear land of dead vegetation and make way for fresh growth, are a natural part of many ecosystems. Unlike a gas-guzzling SUV and other human emissions sources, fire-scarred land can reabsorb carbon as it regrows. 

But the year's fires are different — they're bigger. More than 3.3 million acres have burned so far this season in California, nearby double the record set in 2018. The blazes have destroyed over 4,200 structures and killed 25 people.

The fire season in Southern California, driven by offshore winds, doesn’t typically begin until late September or October, so there may be a ways to go. Oregon and Washington are seeing intense wildfires, too. 

How fast charred areas of the Golden State return to their green glory depends a lot on what was burned in the first place.

The shrub lands charred east of San Jose, for example, will take 30 to 50 years to grow back, according to Jim Randerson, an earth science professor at the University of California at Irvine. But the dense pine and fir forests of the Sierra Nevada will take about a century for trees to reach maturity and forests to fully recover. 

Global warming may make recovery harder, since seedlings may not be able to take root in a hotter climate. “Thats a question we as scientists are trying to answer: that these seeds may not be able to reestablish after a fire,” Randerson said.

Trump has blamed the fires on poor forest management. Although experts say better management can help prevent fires, climate change is causing such extreme heat that it is unlikely any intervention will keep forests from burning.

That, in turn, will make it all the more difficult for the states forests to keep the carbon they have locked in their tree trunks out of the atmosphere.

“That makes it harder for California to meet its emissions goals,” Randerson said. “Climate change is making it that much more difficult.”

Juliet Eilperin and Andrew Freedman contributed to this report.

More on the West Coast wildfires

Smoke from the Western wildfires is approaching Europe and may make its way around the world.

“Smoke from the deadly wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington has hitched a ride on the jet stream and will make it across the Atlantic Ocean, entering the atmosphere above Europe about 5,000 miles away by this weekend, according to observations from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, a science agency that is part of the European Commission,” our colleague Andrew Freedman reports.

High-altitude smoke from fires in Canada makes its way to Europe once or twice a year, but it is rare to see high levels of smoke from California over Europe. Satellite images suggest that the fires in California, Washington and Oregon have burned with an intensity that is far above average.

Multiple fires were ablaze at once in parts of California and Oregon in early September 2020. Here's how those wildfires can diminish air quality. (Video: The Washington Post)

The smoke is so thick in some places that Alaska Airlines stopped flights to Portland, Ore., to protect workers’ health. 

Resources to research and prevent forest fires are being cut, even when they are needed most.

“Federal spending on wildfire suppression has ballooned from roughly $450 million per year in the 1990s to a record-setting $3.1 billion in 2018. This year will probably be even more costly,” our colleagues Sarah Kaplan and Juliet Eilperin write. “But as the toll of wildfire increases, the federal government is supporting less research into the issue.”

The federal budget for the Joint Fire Science Program, the nation’s top fire science program funded by the Interior and Agriculture departments, has been cut drastically. The cuts began during the Obama administration but have accelerated under the Trump administration, which has twice tried to eliminate the project.

Wildfire season is a natural part of many ecosystems, but climate change has these fires burning hotter and longer throughout the year. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

In California, meanwhile, budget shortfalls created by the coronavirus pandemic have led the state to put forest health and wildfire readiness programs on hold. 

Hurricane watch

Hurricane Sally unleashed historic flooding on the Alabama coast and Florida Panhandle.

“After two days spent spinning less than 150 miles off the coast of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, Sally finally made its move to come ashore Wednesday morning, unleashing up to 30 inches of rain, 100 mph wind gusts and a six-foot storm surge,” our colleagues Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow and Matthew Cappucci report.

The National Hurricane Center described “historic and catastrophic flooding” across the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama and warned that the flood threat will spread inland.

Sally made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Gulf Shores, Ala., at 5:45 a.m. Although Sally weakened to a tropical storm with 60 mph winds by Wednesday afternoon, the heavy rains and threat of flooding continued. 

Post reporter describes what it’s like inside the eye of Hurricane Sally.

Our colleague Matthew Cappucci was dispatched Monday night to the Gulf Coast to cover the hurricane’s landfall. 

On Wednesday morning, as the hurricane’s eyewall battered Alabama, Cappucci described waking up to the sound of crashes. 

“My phone clock read 3:32 a.m. The wind was screaming, a pressure washer of wind and rain battering the building. Not a light was visible anywhere, but the silhouettes of trees could be seen flailing wildly, as if frantically trying to get someone’s attention,” Cappucci writes.

Not long after that, he was standing in the eye of the storm, “an oasis of calm surrounded by meteorological hostility.” 

Power plays

Environmental and tribal groups sued the EPA over methane rule rollback.

The lawsuit targets two Trump administration rules, published last month, that rescind methane emissions standards and industry requirements for preventing and detecting methane leaks. The suit, announced Tuesday, comes after 20 states also sued the agency over the methane rules rollback, the Hill reports.

Prominent business group endorses a market-based policy to combat climate change.

The Business Roundtable, a group whose members are CEOs of major U.S. companies, threw its weight behind efforts to combat climate change in a statement released Wednesday on its website, Politico reports.

The group endorsed the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement, including a goal of reducing U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.

The statement did not endorse a specific mechanism for achieving these goals, but it expressed support for a price on carbon “where it is environmentally and economically effective and administratively feasible.”               

The statement of support from companies with combined annual revenue of $7 trillion shows a stark divide between the business community and the Trump administration, which has downplayed the risks posed by climate change.