California and Oregon: Wildfires and Carbon Counting

It’s always interesting to observe differences between Oregon and California. It’s fun because they are both D states so it’s difficult (but not impossible, I’m sure) to partisanize issues.  They both grapple with approaches to climate change.  My hypothesis is that because OSU and UO have been the major universities for so long, and the state capitol is in the Williamette Valley, Oregon has more of a “mesic centric” bias than California.  There’s also a greater history (on the West side and the SW) of timber industry. Meanwhile, at UC Berkeley in the 1950’s, Harold Biswell was arguing for more prescribed fire.

It’s interesting to see how this plays out in the “who’s dishing out most carbon” controversy.  According to the Center for Sustainable Economy here:

A new study by researchers based at Oregon State University and the University of Idaho corroborates Center for Sustainable Economy’s 2015 and 2017 research demonstrating that logging is by far the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and that changes in greenhouse gas accounting rules are urgently needed to ensure that the climate impacts of logging are accurately reported. Both the new OSU study and CSE’s 2017 research estimate annual logging-related emissions to have averaged over 33 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent per year (Mmt CO2-e/yr) since 2000. This makes logging by far the largest source of emissions in the state, far larger than the 23 Mmt CO2-e/yr attributed to transportation – the leading source presently accounted for by the Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC) and the State’s Department of Energy.

And in this High Country News piece about the same study..

And Law’s research could have regional implications. She is working on a larger scale study looking at how land use affects carbon emissions across the West. Stanford forest carbon researcher Christa Anderson says studies like these are important to understand the impact of land use and forests in the carbon balance of the atmosphere.

Except, well, lots of other people watch carbon in California, for example, in this SacBee story that shows how it’s really difficult to decarbonize, even with a plethora of policies in place, in a State that really wants to. The whole article is interesting from that perspective.

The single-biggest contributor to the state’s emissions was the transportation sector, accounting for 40.7% of all emissions in the state, according to the report.

However, California may see a drop in transportation sector-related emissions for 2020 and 2021. The COVID-19-related shift to work from home resulted in a nationwide emissions dip of 15% for 2020.

“California could expect to see a similar level of decline in transportation emissions through 2020 and into 2021,” the report says, though it adds that that data is not yet available.

The second-greatest contributor to California’s greenhouse gas emissions were wildfires.

“Wildfires have always been a feature of the California environment, but they have been producing more (greenhouse gas) emissions than ever, fueled by the impacts of climate change,” according to the report.

In 2020, emissions from wildfires were greater than emissions from any other sector except transportation, with the August Complex Fire alone producing more emissions than the entire commercial sector.

The commercial and residential sectors also continued to increase the amount of emissions produced. From 2014 to 2019, commercial greenhouse gas emissions rose from 4.8% to 5.8%, while residential emissions rose from 6.1% to 7.9%.

Here’s a link to the study. For carbon counters, this group counted 106 MMTCO2e emitted by wildfires in 2020. Of course, it doesn’t look like other states divide up sectors quite the same way the OSU folks did. Seems like in California, at least, managing fire to reduce carbon emissions might be useful.

Of course, “where the best places, best sectors, and best technology to decrease overall emissions with least impacts to disadvantaged folks, and ideally, least negative impacts to anyone and to the environment” are larger questions than the forest community and our researchers alone can answer. Seems like in California, managing fire to reduce carbon emissions might be useful.

3 thoughts on “California and Oregon: Wildfires and Carbon Counting”

    • The assumptions they use are way out of wack. Their biomass paper that is often cited to say biomass has a huge carbon footprint assumed “All” biomass would be transported to a centralized facility (that nugget is buried in the 40 page methods appendix). That would never ever happen and doesn’t make any sense given the huge cost of transporting material that isn’t worth very much. Like all of forestry, the devil is in the details.


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