On the ground, in the air

The effects of climate change have turned California’s land into a source of CO2, rather than a sink

This is an extended version of a story appearing in the December 6, 2018, issue.

Like many of President Trump’s untruths, his ham-fisted assertion that Butte County’s Camp Fire and other deadly California blazes are the result of “gross mismanagement of the forests” contained a sliver of accurate information.

Never mind that he dismissed climate change’s role in tragedy, suggested that “raking and cleaning” the forests would prevent further catastrophes and, adding insult to injury, mistook the town of Paradise for “Pleasure” during a tour of the disaster area with frequent foil Gov. Jerry Brown. There is, in fact, a science-based argument for thinning California’s overgrown forests with prescribed fire and sustainable lumber harvesting—which Brown supports. Because not only would reducing the woodland fuel load reduce the immediate risk of catastrophic fires, it would eventually reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the state’s forests.

“There’s a broad scientific consensus that we need to make forests more resilient to these [wildfires], but also reduce the risk for people,” said Dick Cameron, director of science for the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Think of it in those terms first, and then think of it as a climate-mitigation strategy second.”

Cameron is co-author of “Toward a Carbon Neutral California: Economic and Climate Benefits of Land Use Interventions,” a new study touting the potential climate benefits of stepping up land management practices in forestry and farming. He worked with Michelle Passero, a senior climate policy adviser with the Nature Conservancy, and researchers from UC Santa Barbara and Bowdoin College, on behalf of Next 10, a group funded by venture capitalist and philanthropist F. Noel Perry.

The researchers modeled the ability of forests, farms and range lands to store carbon and cut greenhouse gas emissions. They found that strategies such as proactively thinning forests, planting trees after wildfires, restoring wetlands and avoiding land development for housing and commercial buildings would provide enormous climate benefits. So, too, would reducing agricultural tillage (overturning soil) and increased cover-cropping (growing in the off season rather than leaving soil bare).

These wide-ranging practices could cumulatively prevent some 260 million metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere by 2050.

“That’s about the same amount of pollution produced by 65 coal plants,” Perry said. “So, what this means is that the state can meet between 5 and 7 percent of its 2050 climate goals via natural solutions, while also experiencing—and this is important—co-benefits such as cleaner air and water. This may not sound like huge reductions, but actually it’s 2.5 times the emissions reductions expected from the residential and commercial sectors combined.”

Next 10’s findings are especially significant in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report warning that humanity has a little more than a decade to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid the worst impacts of increasingly intense droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods and megastorms. That’s why Passero believes it’s simply not enough to sit back and wait for the world’s scientists and entrepreneurs to develop futuristic carbon-capture technologies; climate change is an all-hands-on-deck emergency.

“If California wants to become carbon negative—and the IPCC report highlights the importance of doing that—we need all of the solutions to be on the table,” she said.

State officials are increasingly looking at land management as an important piece of California’s climate change strategy. In September, Brown signed an executive order committing to carbon neutrality by 2045 and negative emissions by 2050. In response, the California Air Resources Board is developing a plan to turn the landscape into a reliable carbon sink.

The board heard an update on the Natural and Working Lands Implementation Plan on November 16. Mary Nichols, chairwoman of CARB, said that the state is headed in the wrong direction regarding emissions. Because it takes decades to physically change a landscape, she argued that “action now is critical to achieving the long-term gains our natural environment can provide.”

Historically, the landscape has helped regulate our climate by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in soil and wood. But the effects of climate change—namely, the rise of catastrophic wildfires and unprecedented tree mortality due to drought and bark beetles—have turned California’s land base into a source of CO2, rather than a sink. CARB’s data indicates that 170 million metric tons of carbon entered the atmosphere from 2001 to 2014, primarily due to wildfires.

The public comment period for the Natural and Working Lands Implementation Plan is open until December 10. The plan is set to to be finalized by the end of the year. Cameron, Passero and Perry hope their research informs CARB’s final product and ultimately results in on-the-ground changes in land management.

“California’s natural lands could actually lead to more emissions if nothing is done to increase resiliency in the face of climate change,” Perry said.