CVIndependent

Tue05222018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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Impose a Price on Carbon

This could occur in several ways. The revenue-neutral carbon fee has a great backbone of advocacy support. It would charge fossil fuel producers at the first point of sale, and the revenue would be distributed among the public. Prices of goods and services dependent on fossil fuels would go up, while people who buy less of those products and therefore contribute less to climate change would come out ahead. The revenue-neutral system’s one flaw, according to some, is that it doesn’t provide government with a new source of revenue for funding social systems that promote renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and other climate-focused measures. A cap-and-trade system, on the other hand, would fund public agencies while creating incentive for industries to pollute less. Republicans, however, tend to oppose cap and trade because it acts much like a tax on businesses that they argue will depress the economy.

Carbon Farming

Agriculture has been one of the greatest overall emitters of atmospheric carbon. Now, agriculture must play a role in reversing the damage done to the planet—and it’s theoretically a simple task: When plants grow, they draw carbon into their own mass and into the soil. All that a farmer needs to do is keep that carbon there. By planting long-standing trees and perennial row crops, farmers and other land managers have the power to sequester a great deal of the carbon dioxide that has been emitted into the atmosphere. In the process of slowing climate change, soils will become richer and healthier, with more natural productivity and greater water retention properties than depleted soils.

Redesign Our Cities

Urban areas are responsible for more than half of America’s carbon footprint, by some estimates. The role of cities in driving climate change can be largely offset by turning linear material and waste streams—like water inputs—into circular loops that recycle precious resources. Jonathan F.P. Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City, says 98 percent of material resources that enter a city leave again, mostly as waste, within six months. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings would be one very significant way to reduce a city’s carbon footprint. Upgrading transit systems and making streets more compatible with zero-emission transportation, like walking and riding a bicycle, would also cut emissions.

Shift to Renewable Energy

This is a big one that has to be tackled, and it will mean fighting the powerful petroleum lobby. Generating electricity currently produces 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, the single largest source by sector in the country, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. However, Donald Trump has promised to revive the American coal industry and tap into domestic reserves of natural gas and oil—quite the opposite of developing renewable energy technology.

Strive for Low- to Zero-Emission Transportation

Driving your car—one of the most symbolic expressions of American freedom—contributes significantly to climate change. Transport accounts for 26 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, says the Environmental Protection Agency. More than half of this total comes from private vehicles. Airplanes, ships and trains produce most of the rest. Against the will of the petroleum industry, national leaders must continue pressing for more efficient vehicles, as well as electric ones powered by clean electricity.

Make Homes More Efficient

A single pilot light produces about a half-ton of carbon dioxide per year, according to Peter Kalmus, author of the forthcoming book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. That is just one example of how households contribute to climate change. According to the EPA, commercial and residential spaces produce 12 percent of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In his book, Kalmus discusses how and why he took simple but meaningful action that reduced his carbon dioxide emissions from about 20 tons per year to just two.

See also:

Crisis Coming: Battling Climate Change in the Trump Era Won't be Easy—but It's Vital

California's Disappearing Dream: How Climate Change and a Booming Population Continue to Shape Our Environmental Future

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Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels.

The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation.

Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon dioxide and selling for $10.09. The online auction went fairly smoothly, says Brett Guge, executive vice president of finance and administration at the company. But for Guge, the long-term challenge is finding ways to meet California's ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets (down to 1990 levels by 2020) while remaining profitable.

The Golden State forged ahead with the carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program despite the U.S. Senate's 2010 failure to pass a national program. Given the state's history of implementing environmental regulations that later become national policy, a successful cap-and-trade system could serve as a federal model. If cap-and-trade in California "fails, or is perceived to have failed, then that could be the nail in the coffin for cap-and-trade consideration as a policy instrument in Washington," says Robert Stavins, a Harvard professor who studies climate policy.

While its overall impact on U.S. emissions won't be major, the California experiment makes several improvements to existing cap-and-trade strategies. It covers more sources of pollution than the 5-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeastern U.S., which applies only to power plants. The European Union started the world's largest carbon cap-and-trade program in 2005, but it had a significant flaw: The initial stage of the program gave away too many free credits, resulting in some power companies raking in windfall profits by raising electricity prices, even though they didn't have to pay for their allowances. It also contributed to low prices for carbon allowances, which provides scant incentive to cut emissions.

Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, the agency steering the state program, is confident that California's effort will be different. The program covers 360 businesses, which represent about 600 facilities that each release more than 25,000 metric tons yearly—enough to put a big dent in California's total carbon output. The EU's difficulty, Nichols notes, was that authorities didn't have an accurate measure of the total quantity of emissions initially. California, though, has had a greenhouse-gas reporting requirement in place since 2008.

"We knew (what polluters) were actually putting into the atmosphere," says Nichols. "That gave us the assurance that if we started a (cap-and-trade) program … we would be able to implement it in a way that would not cause the kinds of problems that occurred in Europe."

Fraud could be another obstacle, but experts agree the state is equipped to keep that to a minimum. The Air Resources Board uses third-party verifiers to check reported emissions, and has a system to track allowances and prove their authenticity. Companies that fail to supply enough credits to cover their emissions are fined by having to purchase four times the number of outstanding allowances. While not flawless, the program is unlikely to suffer from market manipulation and fraud, according to an analysis by the University of California at Los Angeles.

But even if the cap-and-trade system works as intended, its economic impacts are a big unknown. Because of its many regulations, high electricity rates and taxes, California is already a costly place to do business.

Guge is worried there won't be a feasible way to reduce the carbon dioxide output of his company's gas-powered furnaces, which account for 75 percent of the plant's total releases. Without reductions, his company will have to pay for more allowances as the cap tightens, but it's reluctant to pass those increased costs on to customers, because that might put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Proponents of cap-and-trade hope the system will drive innovations, with new companies popping up to provide emissions-curbing breakthroughs. In late January, the Sacramento-based firm Clean Tech Advocates launched to do just that. It works to help clean tech developers get state funding, generated from the carbon-credit auctions, for their projects, and its consultants help companies reduce emissions. Founder Patrick Leathers says that, over time, the auctions will bring in "billions of dollars," which will boost the state's clean tech industry and result in carbon-cutting solutions for companies dealing with cap-and-trade.

Environmentalists—and businesses—are hoping he's right.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

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