Grist: Wildfires and CO2

Interesting article in Grist: “This Oregon forest was supposed to store carbon for 100 years. Now it’s on fire.

Claudia Herbert, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, who is studying risks to forest carbon offsets, noticed that the Lionshead Fire — which tore through 190,000 acres of forest in Central Oregon and forced a terrifying evacuation of the nearby town of Detroit — appeared to have almost completely engulfed the largest forest dedicated to sequestering carbon dioxide in the state.

The project, owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, spans 24,000 acres. Before the fires, the state of California had issued more than 2.6 million offset credits based on the carbon stored in its trees. That translates to 2.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — or the equivalent of driving 560,000 cars around for one year.

As many of you are aware, the Lionshead fire is one of many fires to burn in Oregon this year, for a total of ~1 million acres.

9 thoughts on “Grist: Wildfires and CO2”

  1. I think I said this a while back. The problem with trees as carbon offsets is that they die. Obviously, they also burn up. They can get et by bugs, or die from diseases, or both, native, introduced or brand new. They can possibly die from climate change and lack of ability to tolerate changes. It’s hard to imagine anyone with silvicultural experience thinking it’s a good bet that trees will stay around and do what we would like them to do.

    It looks like California has some kind of insurance program for the offsets.

    In 2015, a carbon offset project in Trinity County, California went up in smoke. The fire destroyed two-thirds of the project area and released 1,063,590 tons of carbon dioxide that had been stored in the forest, roughly 45 percent of all the carbon the project was keeping out of the atmosphere. The Trinity Timberlands Project was so badly damaged, that the entire project was terminated.

    Fire insurance

    Fears of similar fates are why some activists argue that it’s much better to simply stop polluting, rather than polluting and then trying to cancel out the damage through offsets. ProPublica published an investigation earlier this year into the checkered history of global offset projects that have failed to produce the planet-saving results they had promised.

    Still, forest offsets remain popular, and as fires continue to spark around the world, offset operators have come up with plans for how to cope with the threat of ignition.

    When offset projects are destroyed, they tap into a buffer account that’s sort of like an insurance pool. “It works kind of like an insurance scheme, where all the projects have to contribute some portion of the credits that they are generating,” Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute explains to The Verge.

    In California, any forest offset project is required to set aside a percentage of its forest toward that buffer. The idea is that if one project gets consumed by flames, trees at a different project, unscathed by flames will be able to make up the difference.

    The 2015 fire at Trinity was the first and, so far, last time that buffer pool has been tapped because of fire, according to the California Air Resources Board. “From our perspective, it really demonstrated that the system worked as designed,” says Brian Shillinglaw, managing director of New Forests Inc., which was involved in financing and developing the Trinity project.

    But that insurance pool needs to be robust enough to handle all the threats that might come along over time — especially as climate change threatens to ratchet up the intensity of wildfires and extend the length of fire seasons. “One concern is that the buffer pool will not be large enough to cover all of the reversals that will happen over decades,” Barbara Haya tells The Verge.

    Here’s the link to the Verge article from last year.

    FWIW I’d put my money on carbon reduction technology, not forest offsets.

    • Since I don’t have “money“ I’ll trust my life to old-growth native forests any day rather than rely on humans to do anything beneficial for the ecosystem. Want to stop or mitigate climate change, then stop logging my home.

    • According to the US EPA, transportation and “industry” account for well over 50% of US emissions. Land Use and Forestry: 11.6 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions:

      The primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are:

      Transportation (28.2 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes primarily gasoline and diesel.2
      Electricity production (26.9 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – Electricity production generates the second largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 63 percent of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas.3
      Industry (22.0 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from industry primarily come from burning fossil fuels for energy, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from certain chemical reactions necessary to produce goods from raw materials.
      Commercial and Residential (12.3 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from businesses and homes arise primarily from fossil fuels burned for heat, the use of certain products that contain greenhouse gases, and the handling of waste.
      Agriculture (9.9 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production.
      Land Use and Forestry (11.6 percent of 2018 greenhouse gas emissions) – Land areas can act as a sink (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) or a source of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, since 1990, managed forests and other lands are a net sink, i.e. they have absorbed more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit.

      • I wouldn’t say “outdated” I would say “different”. I read the study and I didn’t agree with many of the assumptions.
        Just because scientists make assumptions and quantify them, doesn’t make the result “science.”

  2. Forests are a system that have processes that both absorb and emit carbon. Each year some subset of forests are emitting net carbon due to respiration and combustion. Meanwhile another subset of forests are absorbing net carbon because they are dominated by photosynthesis.

    Forest growth generally has little trouble outpacing carbon emissions from fire and other natural processes. The problem is that photosynthesis has trouble keeping up with the combined emissions from natural processes plus logging.

    • Human-caused wildfires are generally, not considered to be “natural”, especially with the sheer numbers of them in today’s real world. We should not be relying on “natural succession”, where humans start so many wildfires.


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