The bitter irony was highlighted Wednesday in comments by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Thom Porter, who said the blazes in the West were taking out years of work combating climate change.
Some of the blazes are raging in areas that are “a huge part of California’s climate initiative,” Porter said. “We are seeing generational destruction of forests because of what these fires are doing. This is going to take a long time to come back from.”
Porter was talking about forests dedicated to carbon offset programs, which have been billed as a tool to fight climate change. The underlying goal of such programs is to ensure large swaths of trees continue growing. As they grow, the trees suck carbon out of the air and store it.
“When trees grow, as they get bigger, they pull carbon out of the atmosphere and they store it in their trunks, the branches, the leaves, every part of the tree, and that’s good,” said Danny Cullenward, policy director of Carbon Plan, a nonprofit that researches climate policy.
But there’s an increasing problem: The plan works only “as long as the tree is alive and hasn’t burned to the ground.”
If the trees burn, they not only stop capturing carbon – they also release massive amounts of it into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas that has been piled sky high into the atmosphere, and according to a landmark United Nations report this month, is causing increasingly catastrophic climate change, with fiercer lightning storms and hotter, drier conditions in forests across the planet.
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The monster Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which burned for about six weeks until it was contained in mid-August, wiped out an estimated 24% of a huge carbon offset project used by Microsoft and others, according to Carbon Plan, a nonprofit that has a live map updating the overlap of the fires and forest projects. In eastern Washington on tribal lands, five blazes have burned about 12% of the huge Colville forest project.
“This summer and the past few years have made it incredibly clear that forest offsets face substantial risks from climate change, including major wildfires,” said University of Utah ecologist William Anderegg. “A major forest offset project burned in 2020, and there are currently at least four offset projects burning in 2021.”
And in California and Montana, several fires now burning have overlapped with projects or are within a few miles of them.
Some trees involved in the projects were always expected to burn. A system called “buffer pools” was set up to ensure that trees that go up in smoke or otherwise are lost would be factored into the planning of carbon offset programs, much like an insurance policy. But researchers say the pool is not keeping up with the rate with which wildfires are destroying trees.
“We haven’t set up a real insurance program, and all of these climate claims are going up in smoke,” Cullenward said. “If you’ve got a forest offset project on fire, it’s definitely not working.”
The programs are often used by major companies like Microsoft and BP and were built on a long-standing recognition of trees’ powerful ability to trap carbon dioxide, converting it into beneficial organic matter for a century or longer.
But a June 2020 review in the prestigious journal Science concluded that while forests could provide limited help, they should not be relied upon as a major tool to combat climate change.
“Using forests as natural climate solutions must not distract from rapid reductions in emissions,” it said.
The problem playing out in the West is far from unique. Heat waves and historic droughts tied to climate change have contributed to more intense wildfires around the globe.
Timothy Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, said hotter climates may have different consequences across the globe. In some areas, climate-change-induced droughts will fuel wildfires. In other areas, more rainfall could increase tree growth, allowing some regions to absorb more carbon and help slow climate change.
But hope that trees alone will make a significant impact has been fading in recent years. Notably, a study published last month said parts of the Amazon rainforest are now emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb.
Increases in fires combined with persistent droughts in the West might signal an adjustment is needed in plans to use trees in the West to fight climate change, especially because forests going up in flames can be a huge source of carbon emissions.
Different trees and the climate they are grown in can alter how much carbon they hold. A massive redwood, for instance, can hold as much as 250 tons of carbon over its lifetime. Other trees can absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere a year. But when they burn, those carbon gases are emitted into the atmosphere, compounding the problem.
California’s historic 2020 fire season, which included five of the largest blazes in state history, released about 107 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere – the equivalent of more than 23 million cars driven for one year.
“We really are in a pinch to do everything we can possibly do in the next 30 years or so to try to keep climate change from kind of spiraling out of control,” Searchinger said.