It’s days like today that I wished I had former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s superpower and could “love that smell of the emissions,” or at least was immune to them. In reality, of course, nobody is. But reading statistics about millions a year dying from air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels is one thing. Having your own eyes water because you dared to leave the house for five minutes to walk the dog is quite another.
Over 75 million Americans from the Canadian border down to South Carolina are facing air quality alerts telling them the very air they breathe is either unhealthy or outright hazardous. The wildfires ought to be a clarifying moment for climate action in many more ways than one.
First and foremost, the wildfires should finally put to rest any of the doubts that deep and sustained cuts to our burning of fossil fuels are indeed warranted. We’ve long known enough to act, and the remaining uncertainties push the need for much stronger climate action higher still. Attribution science has made such leaps in just the past few years, that science can now link individual weather extremes to climate change and the burning of fossil fuels. That includes wildfires. The causal relationship between a warming climate and growing wildfires isn’t in doubt.
Statements like this will no doubt bring out the “rational” skeptics, the “skeptical” environmentalists, and assorted other self-styled “honest” brokers. Don’t you know that the climate has been changing forever? (It has.) That there have been wildfires before? (There have.) That we should stop expanding suburbs and exurbs into forested frontiers prone to wildfires? (We should.)
The immediate rejoinder to calls for cutting carbon emissions because of the current Canadian wildfires is that you switching from your gas-guzzling SUV to an electric vehicle, or going all in and cutting your own emissions to zero, or Canada doing the same, or even the U.S. doing so alone will not stop wildfires tomorrow. It won’t. The task is nothing short of a wholescale transformation of the global energy sector.
That is why the global clean-energy race, to a good extent jumpstarted by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, is so promising. It is also where the details begin to matter, and where the wildfires offer an important wakeup call.
Many companies have made significant commitments to cut their own carbon emissions. A full third of the 2,000 largest publicly traded companies have anchored net-zero targets in their corporate strategies. Another 10% have pledged to make a plan. Most are committing to hit their targets by midcentury. But even for those with a corporate strategy, the “net” in net-zero often does quite a lot of work. That typically implies offsets, often lots of them.
As a general rule, when a corporate strategy to achieve net zero involves cutting one’s own emissions by a bit, with the large rest achieved by paying others to remove carbon from the atmosphere, the strategy is worth little. Instead, any corporate strategy ought to focus on actually cutting one’s own emissions by getting off fossil fuels. Offsets might still have a role to play, but for the final 10% or perhaps 20%, not 80%.
Yes, it is technically possible to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back into rocks, and we should invest much more heavily into these technologies. But many have looked to cheap forest carbon offsets instead to achieve their net-zero goals. That is especially true for some who claim that they are already “carbon-neutral.” For an airline today, for example, that statement is pure folly. Asking customers to pay a few dollars extra per ticket to offset the emissions their flight will have caused, does little other than make them feel good about flying, and to fly more as a result. And it is not just the volunteerism that poses problems.
Trees sometimes burn. That releases the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. California has an emissions trading system that puts a price of around $30 per ton of carbon dioxide on the majority of the state’s emissions. Alas, the state also allows a large number of carbon forest offsets into the system. Accounting gimmicks and potentially outright fraud pose serious challenges to that system.
Another big challenge: wildfires. California, of course, recognizes that wood burns and releases the carbon. But the state has woefully underestimated the true impact of wildfires. It had set aside a reserve of forest carbon credits to ensure the integrity of the system for a hundred years. Wildfires literally burned through that hundred-year reserve in a decade. And climate change is only going to make things worse going forward.
The world must do everything it can to protect our forests and avoid wildfires like the current Canadian ones in the future. That will require, in part, for someone to pay forest owners to keep their trees standing, something particularly important in the rainforests of the world. (And yes, rainforests, too, experience massive wildfires fueled by climate change.)
Not all lessons are so dour. There are positive ones aplenty, beginning with the fact that some carbon cutting measures also help adapt to the impacts of climate change already in store, and vice versa. If the air inside your home today seems hazy, that is a sure sign that better insulation is in order. That insulation, of course, will not just protect you from wildfire smoke. It is also a key step in cutting carbon emissions from your own home.
We will never be able to prevent all wildfires. We should learn our lesson from the current ones that it is high time to pursue real climate solutions. The hopeful part: these solutions are coming ever more into focus. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City over a decade ago, solar panels were 10 times more expensive than they are today. We have no excuse left not to act.
This article was originally published by Barron's.