Opinion Columns & Blogs

Serious about climate change? Look to forests

The glow from the Rough Fire paints the smoke red last September from a point along Dunlap Road near Miramonte.
The glow from the Rough Fire paints the smoke red last September from a point along Dunlap Road near Miramonte. ezamora@fresnobee.com/2015

Not every Californian agrees with the urgency of the state’s drive to fight climate change, but everyone ought to agree on one thing: When the state spends money to reduce greenhouse gases, every dollar counts and should be aimed at getting the best results.

Unfortunately, when it comes to using the multibillion-dollar Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, new reports show the state is largely wasting money, dropping enormous sums on projects that do little for the climate while skimping on effective work.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recently studied spending on the wide variety of programs that are supposedly about stopping climate change. I’ve said for years that if the state is truly concerned about the climate, it urgently needs to look to its forests – which are unhealthy, thick with dead and dying trees and other heavy fuels, primed for massive fires whose smoke plumes are an enormous source of carbon emissions.

The LAO’s report agrees. Using data from the Air Resources Board, it found that investing in forest health achieved the best carbon benefits at the lowest cost of any greenhouse-gas program, tied with loans for recycling and waste diversion. For every four dollars the state spent, it reduced carbon emissions by a ton.

For comparison, the average cost to avoid a ton of emissions was $57 – more than 10 times as costly as improving our forests. Some incentives for cleaner vehicles were even higher – as much as $725 per ton of carbon.

Now, in any private business, you’d invest your money where you were getting a great return and cut your losses elsewhere. That is not what the state has been doing. Just $8 million has gone toward healthy forests, while $850 million has been sunk into high-speed rail – whose greenhouse-gas benefits, if any, are so far in the future that they haven’t even been calculated.

More than $200 million went to other transit and rail projects at a cost per ton of carbon more than 60 times higher than forestry. Affordable housing took more than $150 million, at a cost 50 times higher.

Meanwhile, as the legislative analyst’s report notes, the money comes from a cap-and-trade auction where utilities and industries must buy permits for every ton of carbon they emit. The cost? Between $11 and $13 per ton.

The market imposes discipline. If an energy-saving project costs more than $13 per ton, then it just doesn’t pencil out for a business. Politics obviously has a different rulebook.

But if we’re serious about climate, we need to tame the growth of destructive, stand-replacing megafires. We need to thin forests – which historically burned often but lightly – to a more natural condition, where their trees will grow larger and store more carbon longer. Forest scientists have charted a path, and from neighborhood Fire Safe Councils to the U.S. Forest Service, plans are on the shelf waiting for funding to carry out.

The benefits, meanwhile, will go beyond climate. Communities and firefighters alike will be safer. Our mountain streams will provide cleaner water for all Californians. The state, which has spent $3 billion fighting fires since 2008, will cut its costs dramatically over time.

If we really care about the climate, we need to put our money where it will actually make a difference – especially in healthy forests. Otherwise, we’re just greenwashing a multibillion-dollar slush fund.

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents the 1st Assembly District, including the northern Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border.

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