Could California’s Climate Goals go up in smoke?

California Governor Jerry Brown recently made headlines with his announcement that his state would pursue the United States’ most ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. His announcement of a reduction of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 is an interim step towards predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 80% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050. The transport (36%) and energy sectors (21%) respectively are the two biggest contributors to California’s carbon footprint, however land use gets little attention. Trees store large amounts of carbon, and when they are cut down for timber, burnt in a fire or paved over, carbon emissions result.


Since AB32 (California’s first global warming legislation) was passed in 2006, the state’s carbon targets have been based on no net increase in land use based emissions. However, a survey by the National Park Service’s top Climate Change Scientist Patrick Gonzalez which was published in April 2015 found that land use in California has been a carbon source rather than sink over the last decade. California’s 26 National Parks store approximately the carbon emissions of 7 million American citizens, however over the last 10 years wildfires, development and agriculture have reduced the amount of forest cover and other natural landscapes. This reduction in cover has resulted in carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to the City of Dallas (5-7% of California’s total carbon footprint).


Gonzalez’s report revealed that two thirds of the land use emissions were the result of wildfires, and therefore fire management is a key step in reducing California’s emissions. Climate change exacerbates wildfires by increasing both the frequency and severity of droughts, and as California’s drought is now 5 years old, the wildfire season could literally be disastrous. The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service are currently working with Californian regulators to track the role of climate in deforestation and develop policies which will maintain more carbon stored in trees.


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California is to be applauded for its leadership and research into the carbon storage of its national parks. One wonders how many other jurisdictions have considered the extent of risk of similar episodes. For those not familiar with the state of Western Australia where I live, there are a number of forest and woodland areas, some of which surround residential areas (eg. Perth the capital city) and tourist hotspots such as wineries (including the world renowned Margaret River region). Perth has experienced some notable bushfires in recent years which has highlighted the utter devastation and loss that such fires can bring. While our first thoughts should of course be with those trying to save their homes and lives during bushfires, I think it prudent that, based on the findings of the California research, similar work be conducted in Western Australia and other locations that have significant forest and woodland areas nearby. Such research not only identifies how much carbon is locked away in the trees, it informs carbon and conservation management decisions which in combination ultimately maintain forests and woodlands as the important ecosystems that they are.



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