First, the good news: The amount of planet-warming gases Californians released into the atmosphere in 2020 was 9% less than the previous year — a record drop largely due to motorists driving less during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Now for the bad news: The amount of carbon dioxide spewed by record wildfires that same year effectively erased nearly two decades of emissions reductions by the world’s fifth — and soon fourth — largest economy.
The two findings — both released more than a week apart this month — paint a grim and confusing portrait of California’s efforts to curb global warming. They also come after a UN report found global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to be “grossly inadequate”.
The news that Californians effectively reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million metric tons in 2020 — the equivalent of 94 coal-fired power plants operating for one year — was announced last week as part of the California Air Resources Board’s annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory.
But the inventory didn’t account for the roughly 127 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that were released by the state’s wildfires in 2020. That part of the equation was reported earlier this month by UCLA researchers. They found that wildfires were second only to transportation as the primary source of global warming gases in 2020, ahead of industry and electricity generation.
Asked why their inventory didn’t also include that information, CARB said it was designed to estimate heat-trapping gases produced by all sectors of the state economy, including industrial transportation, electricity, agriculture, commercial and residential sectors.
“We track emissions from wildfires every year, but they are not part of the greenhouse gas inventory … which tracks emissions from fossil fuels and gases with high global warming potential, such as methane and HFC refrigerants,” said CARB spokesman David Clegern.
They said the agency included wildfires when it calculated its draft Scoping Plan 2022, which urges state and federal agencies to drastically increase thinning and management of forests that 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’s imperative that we work even harder to reduce fossil fuel emissions because it’s clear they’re causing the overall problem, and we have the means to make those reductions now,” Clegern said.
Since its inception in 2000, the annual estimate of statewide greenhouse gas emissions has been considered an important metric in tracking a state’s progress toward its climate goals. But state officials said 2020 was an unusual year and that they expected an increase when calculating the 2021 inventory.
In 2020, the biggest drop in emissions was in the transport sector, where carbon emissions were 27 million tonnes less, or about 16% less, compared to 2019. This was mainly due to fewer cars on the road during the shelter-in-place. orders.
In April 2020, California motorists drove 44% fewer miles than in April 2019. Mileage has since returned to pre-pandemic levels, state officials said. Heavy truck mileage also fell 13% in April 2020 compared to the same month a year earlier, but later surpassed 2019 levels as consumer demand grew 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 Steven Cliff, executive director of CARB. “But it was also clear that as we build back, we must continue to take actions that we know will reduce greenhouse gases and clean up the air and our hardest-hit communities, including the deployment of renewable 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 agrees that the 2020 numbers don’t tell much.
“The whole issue is what happens after a pandemic year, and that’s not something that this inventory talks about,” he said. “If you’re wondering, are we on track to our goals? How it looks? It was an anomalous year. There is nothing surprising about the published data. It was not a very representative year. What matters is what happens when we get out of it.”
But California’s two-year delay in disclosing greenhouse gas emissions presents an obstacle to a quick response, he said.
“It’s a little weird that we’re in October 2022 and we’re talking about what happened in 2020,” Cullenward said.
“The delay contributes to a lack of oversight and reduces the potential for policymakers to update their thinking,” he said.