A new analysis finds the increase in emissions caused by wildfires in a single year is close to double the emissions reductions achieved over 16 years.
Assistant Professor Amir Jina

As wildfires raged in California again this summer, the damages are adding up. In 2020 alone, wildfires killed 30 people and caused more than $19 billion in economic losses. On top of the immediate damages, the wildfires lead to pollution that is set to shave nearly a year off the life expectancy of residents in California’s most polluted counties if pollution levels persist. What is often ignored is that, fueled by climate change’s higher temperatures and drier conditions, the wildfires also contribute to climate change. A new analysis finds the wildfires in 2020 alone make up 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The carbon dioxide from wildfires is not counted against California’s emissions targets. But if it were, the wildfires would be setting California back in meeting its climate goals, with the carbon emissions from California’s 2020 fire season alone making up 49 percent of the state’s 2030 emissions target. In fact, the analysis— published in the October edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution—showed that the increase in emissions in a single year is about two times the reductions achieved from 2003 to 2019.

“To the great credit of California’s policy-makers and residents, from 2003 to 2019, California’s GHG emissions declined by 65 million metric tons of pollutants, a 13 percent drop that was largely driven by reductions from the electric power generation sector,” said Michael Jerrett, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of environmental health sciences and an author of the study. “Essentially, the positive impact of all that hard work over almost two decades is at risk of being swept aside by the smoke produced in a single year of record-breaking wildfires.”

California’s expansive wildfires were the second largest source of emissions in the state in 2020, behind only the transportation sector. While some of the carbon release from fires will be balanced by later vegetation regrowth, it will not occur quickly enough to avert highly dangerous levels of increased emissions, temperatures, and climate change, the researchers said.

“Although wildfires are a natural feature of many ecosystems in California, the increase in severe and frequent wildfire events has raised the possibility of transformed post-fire ecosystems,” said Dr. Miriam Marlier, a UCLA Fielding School professor and co-author. “Even if long-term regrowth occurs, however, the carbon emissions occurring in the next 15–20 years will make it difficult to reach emission reduction targets needed to avert the increases in mean global temperature advocated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.”

The researchers also examined the financial costs. The carbon emissions released from the 2020 wildfires equate to more than $7 billion in total global damages, or about $986.9 million in damages to the United States and some $98.7 million in damages for California. These damages are on top of the fire control costs, damages from air pollution, and direct loss of life and property.

“When policymakers are deciding how much to invest in wildfire prevention, it’s important for them to have a clear sense of all of the costs and benefits, and up until now, not enough attention has been paid to the climate costs,” said co-author Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “At the same time, the climate costs associated with wildfires have often been ignored in climate policy debates in the state. This analysis clearly shows that wildfire emissions need to be a key part of climate policy if California is going to meet its emission reduction goals.”

This article originally appeared at the Energy Policy Institute at UChicago.