First, the good news: The amount of planet-warming gases Californians released into the atmosphere in 2020 was 9% lower than the year before — a record drop, largely due to that motorists drive less during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Now the bad news: The amount of carbon dioxide spewed up by record wildfires that same year has effectively erased nearly two decades of emissions cuts from the world’s fifth – and soon to be fourth – largest economy.
Those two findings — both released in just over a week this month — painted a grim and confusing picture of California’s efforts to curb global warming. They also come as a UN report finds that global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are “grossly insufficient”.
The news that Californians had effectively reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million metric tons in 2020 – the equivalent of 94 coal-fired power plants operating for a year – was announced last week as part of the inventory California Air Resources Board’s annual greenhouse gas emissions report.
The inventory, however, did not account for the roughly 127 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that were released by the state’s wildfires in 2020. That piece of the equation was announced earlier. this month by UCLA researchers. They found that wildfires were second only to transportation as the main source of planet-warming gases in 2020, ahead of industry and power generation.
When asked why its inventory did not also include this information, CARB said it was designed to estimate heat-trapping gases produced by all sectors of the state’s economy, including industrial transport, electricity, agriculture, commercial and residential sectors.
“We track emissions from wildfires on an annual basis, but they are not part of the GHG inventory … which tracks emissions from fossil fuels and high global warming potential gases such as methane and refrigerants. HFCs,” CARB spokesman David Clegern said.
They said the agency had included wildfires in the calculation of its draft 2022 framing plan, which urges state and federal authorities to dramatically increase the thinning and treatment of forests that have become dangerously overgrown with flammable vegetation.
“We are working with other state agencies on ways to stabilize forests and return them to sustainability as carbon sinks. In the meantime, it is essential that we work even harder to reduce fossil fuel emissions because it is clear that they are the root of the global problem and we have the means to make these reductions now,” Clegern said. .
Since its inception in 2000, the annual estimate of statewide greenhouse gas emissions has been considered an important metric for tracking the state’s progress toward its climate goals. However, state officials said 2020 was an abnormal year and they expected to see an increase when they calculated the 2021 inventory.
In 2020, the transportation sector accounted for the largest drop in emissions, with 27 million metric tons less carbon emissions, or about 16% less, compared to 2019. This was largely due to fewer cars on the road during shelter-in-place. orders.
In April 2020, California motorists drove 44% fewer miles than in April 2019. Miles driven have since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, state officials said. Truck mileage also fell 13% in April 2020 from the same month a year earlier, but then rose above 2019 levels as consumer demand increased during the shutdown.
“This year will be considered an outlier and cannot be used as a reliable data point to predict trends for years to come,” said CARB chief executive Steven Cliff. “He also made it clear however that as we rebuild, we must continue with the actions we know will reduce greenhouse gases and clean the air and our hardest hit communities, including the deployment of energy and zero-emission cars and trucks on our roads and highways. »
Danny Cullenward, policy director of CarbonPlan, a California-based nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions, said he agreed there wasn’t much to learn from the 2020 numbers.
“The whole issue is what happens after the pandemic year, and that’s not something this inventory talks about,” he said. “If you are wondering, are we on track to achieve our goals? How are things going ? It was an abnormal year. There is nothing surprising in the published data. It was not a very representative year. What matters is what happens when we get out of it.
The two-year lag in reporting California’s greenhouse gas emissions, however, presents a barrier to a quick response, he said.
“It’s kind of weird that we’re here in October 2022 and talking about what happened in 2020,” Cullenward said.
“The delay contributes to a lack of oversight and reduces the opportunity for decision-makers to update their thinking,” he said.
Los Angeles Times