There is no doubt that COVID-19 has reduced air pollution — just ask anybody who lives in Beijing, China — who for a month or two could see blue skies again before they got the virus under control and went back to business as usual.
This real-time demonstration of what happens following a reduction in fossil fuel emissions should convince everyone that an active decarbonization program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would provide similar results. In Central Oregon, our summer wildfires are creating an additional challenge in the form of air pollution that has similar effects on health as fossil fuel emissions.
In testimony on Aug. 5, to Congress, Professor Drew Shindell from Duke University reported on new research from his lab. He writes:
“The study estimates effects on the health and economic benefits to Americans if the United States and the rest of the world mitigate climate change to meet the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement and keep global warming below 2⁰C (3.6⁰F). Results showed that the health benefits are much larger than those from prior studies. Over the next 50 years, keeping to the 2⁰C pathway would prevent roughly 4.5 million premature deaths, about 3.5 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits, and approximately 300 million lost workdays in the US.”
There is an exceptionally good 12-minute discussion of this topic in the Energy Gang podcast (minutes 42:35-54:30). According to Professor Shindell, the savings by avoiding death, health care, hospitalizations and decreased labor productivity are on average equivalent to more than $700 billion per year in benefits to the US from improved health and labor alone, which is more than what it would cost to completely convert the US from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.
The carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from wildfires add to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; therefore, wildfires in U.S. western states contribute to the ongoing climate emergency and fires are projected to increase under a changing climate, even if mainstream news outlets infrequently mention climate change as a cause in this year’s list of wildfire incidents.
Another study demonstrates how to immediately decarbonize the American economy to capture all the health benefits described by Professor Shindell. In Rewiring America, A Field Manual for the Climate Fight, a new publication by Saul Griffith, he emphasizes moving away from a fossil fuel economy based on the things we already know how to do — most easily described as electrify everything now using existing technology.
The Energy Gang podcast (minutes 3:45–29:58) discusses the reality of these options. Rewiring America points out we could seize on the COVID and wildfire emergencies as opportunities to generate political will for lasting change. Examples of US resolve are discussed: (a) the New Deal, (b) mobilization for World War II, © the space race, (d) the 1970s energy crisis, (e) the public health crisis from smoking, and (f) the Montreal Protocol (addressing damage to the ozone layer).
Although it is often said that wildfires and forest fires are increasing due to climate change, it is difficult to determine a trend in Oregon because it depends on the time series used to make the assessment. If looking only at the past ten years in Oregon there is a discernable increase in area burned but historically, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry, during 1920-1940 (including the drought era of the 1930s), a greater area was burned than in the last decade.
California data show a similar trend over the past decade, but the data published on the Calfire website does not go back to the early 1900s like in Oregon.
In addition, new research by Jeffrey E. Stenzel from the University of Idaho indicates that forest fires do not release nearly as much carbon into the atmosphere as previously believed, generally because scientists overestimated the percentage of biomass burned in fires and because of the large variation in fuel from fire to fire, for example, grassland fires versus forest fires).
Nevertheless, fossil fuel emissions remain far more significant than those from wildfires according to this regional study. Results showed that over the past 17 years, forest fires released only 5 percent of the fossil fuel derived CO2-equivalent emitted from the region during the same period.
The Oregon Global Warming Commission 2017 Biennial Report to the Legislature shows that the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are transportation, residential and commercial energy production, industry, and agriculture — all of which are well above the emissions from wildfires.
These findings suggest that if we act now to decarbonize our domestic economy it will pay off in terms of jobs, better health, economics, and quality of life, regardless of the source and relative magnitude of emissions.
Scott Christiansen is an international agronomist with 35 years of experience. He worked for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development.