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Boiling Point: Want to stop climate change? Look to farms, forests and wetlands

A hiker crosses a stream in the Little Lakes Valley of Inyo National Forest on Aug. 28, 2020.
A hiker crosses a stream in the Little Lakes Valley of Inyo National Forest on Aug. 28, 2020.
(Stuart Leavenworth / Los Angeles Times)

Building housing in city centers, rather than carving new subdivisions into undisturbed landscapes. Planting nonmarketable cover crops on farms during fallow seasons. Restoring coastal wetlands that have been dredged, filled and paved over. Thinning forests and setting prescribed burns to reduce the severity of later fires.

All those ideas have something important in common: They would reduce planet-warming emissions. And together, they could play a huge role in California’s efforts to lead the world in fighting climate change, according to a report released today by scientists at the Nature Conservancy.

We should be grateful to natural landscapes: Without any prompting from human beings, they absorb 29% of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere, per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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At the same time, agriculture, forestry and other human land uses account for 23% of global emissions, the IPCC says. And as we continue heating the planet, chopping down forests to make way for farmland, and generally interfering with natural ecosystems, we may be tilting the balance from lands acting as a “net sink” to a “net source” of carbon.

Here’s a chart featured in the Nature Conservancy’s report, showing projected carbon storage in California’s “natural and working lands” over the rest of this century. It’s a hard thing to predict, but overall the likelihood is more heat-trapping gas getting spewed into the atmosphere than is sucked up by plants, soils and wetlands:

Chart showing projected carbon storage by California lands through 2100.
Chart showing projected carbon storage by California lands through 2100.

Suffice to say, this is bad. It’s already going to be hard enough transitioning away from fossil fuels and changing our habits to meet the needs of the clean-energy future. My colleague Tony Barboza reported this week that California’s planet-warming emissions actually rose slightly in 2018, according to newly released data.

But this is where the Nature Conservancy’s hopeful findings come into play. With the right policies, the group estimates, California can use its natural and working lands to reduce emissions by 514 million metric tons over the next 30 years.

How much carbon is that? The Golden State emitted 425 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2018, so we’re talking about eliminating a full year’s worth of emissions from the world’s fifth-largest economy.

“These are activities that are already well-researched, that are easy to implement, that can already be done right now, immediately, with the technologies we have,” the Nature Conservancy’s Sydney Chamberlin, a co-author of the report, told me.

The group identified 13 distinct climate strategies for natural and working lands, and the list is striking for its inclusion of ideas you might not think of as “climate policy” if you’re not already enmeshed in this stuff.

For instance, about one-quarter of the emissions that could be reduced come from “avoided conversion.” That means preventing suburban sprawl and agricultural expansion from continuing to destroy natural landscapes, so undisturbed soil and vegetation can keep absorbing and storing carbon dioxide.

Specific policies could include “investing in infill development, supporting local and regional policies that make redevelopment more affordable than new development [and] setting high fees for conversion of intact landscapes,” the report says. Infill development and densification are politically challenging in California, where single-family homeowners have often fought efforts to build new housing.

Several solutions deal with agriculture, including planting cover crops to increase soil’s ability to absorb carbon, using nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently to reduce emissions, and applying compost to grasslands.

Thinning out forests and setting prescribed burns would lead to more carbon in the atmosphere in the short term, but would yield benefits over the long run as healthier forests become less vulnerable to the mega-fires now being fueled by climate change.

The Nature Conservancy mapped out where the various solutions could be implemented, creating some cool visualizations. Here’s a statewide map showing there are few places in California where something can’t be done:

Statewide map showing potential for emissions reductions from natural and working lands.
Statewide map showing potential for emissions reductions from natural and working lands.

You’ll notice the map is largely blank in the desert. I was a little disappointed the report leaves out this region, since it’s one of my favorite parts of California. Michelle Passero, who leads the Nature Conservancy’s California Climate Program and co-authored the report, told me there’s research showing desert soil stores carbon, but more science is needed in this area.

“I think a no-brainer would just be avoiding disturbance. The more you can keep those areas intact and not disturbed, you’re not going to create that kind of release of carbon,” Passero said.

The report offers several fascinating examples of carbon-reduction strategies that also offer environmental justice benefits. For instance, planting trees in cities — “urban reforestation” if you want to get fancy — not only sucks up carbon, it makes life better for those most harmed by climate change: people of color and low-income families, who are more likely to live in neighborhoods that lack shade and face the greatest health risks during heat waves.

The Nature Conservancy cites Los Angeles as a leader in this area; Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 2019 climate plan set a goal of planting 90,000 trees by 2021, and increasing the tree canopy by 50% over the next decade in shade-starved low-income areas.

Restoring wetlands is another key strategy, since these water-logged ecosystems “store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. California has lost the vast majority of its wetlands to development, but there’s been some recent restoration progress in L.A. and Orange counties, as Martin Wisckol reports for the Orange County Register.

An egret takes flight low over the marsh at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which protects wetlands in Orange County.
(Scott Smeltzer / Los Angeles Times)

Ironically, environmental reviews can be a barrier to the types of projects described in the Nature Conservancy’s report. It took over three years for Elkhorn Slough Foundation to get all the permits it needed for wetland restoration at Hester March in Monterey Bay, under laws such as the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“If it takes three years for any project to get going and we’re thinking about the next 10 years really mattering for climate change, that’s a big chunk of time just to get the permits,” Passero said.

There are signs California officials are beginning to take these kinds of nature-based solutions seriously. In 2018, the state’s Air Resources Board released its first inventory of carbon stored in natural and working lands. And this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order calling for regulators to “maximize the full climate benefits of our natural and working land,” in part by protecting 30% of the state’s land and coastal waters by 2030.

Activists across the country have been campaigning for the “30 by 30" target, which is meant to slow both climate change and biodiversity loss. A study published last week found that protecting 30% of priority areas “could save the majority of mammals, amphibians and birds that are dying out and would soak up about 465 billion tons of carbon dioxide, equal to nearly half of the CO2 that has built up in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age,” as Bob Berwyn reports for InsideClimate News.

Will any of this be easy? Of course not. But it’s important to recognize that energy isn’t the whole climate change story. The land matters too. It always has.

Here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

Exide Technologies will be allowed to abandoned its shuttered battery plant in Vernon, leaving behind thousands of yards riddled with brain-damaging lead. Here’s the story from Tony Barboza on the bankruptcy court’s decision, which infuriated residents of the working-class Latino communities surrounding the plant. Tony also wrote about a protest where some residents threw bags of dirt from their lead-contaminated yards onto the steps of a federal courthouse. (See photos below.) The bankruptcy court judge apparently felt bad because he later issued a somewhat apologetic letter, as Times columnist Michael Hiltzik noted.

There’s a crisis in the Galapagos Islands, where COVID-19 and a menacing Chinese fishing fleet have upended ecosystems and a way of life. My colleagues Susanne Rust and Carolyn Cole ventured to the islands off the coast of Ecuador to tell the story. Rust wrote that the pandemic “has laid bare the vulnerability of an economic model that is 90% dependent upon tourism dollars, while also highlighting the extraordinary beauty and remoteness of the islands — and the magic that is lost when thousands of tourists descend daily into this fragile ecosystem.” Be sure to check out Cole’s gorgeous photographs and this extraordinary video.

No matter how much time I spend reading and reporting on climate change, sometimes I still find a story that stuns me. That’s how I felt reading this piece by the New York Times’ Christopher Flavelle, on new research finding that higher temperatures result in Black and Latino children performing worse on tests, seemingly because they’re less likely to have air conditioning.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

The Trump administration rejected California’s request for disaster relief funds for six recent fires. Then, the next morning, the administration reversed course and approved the funding. The whole thing gave me whiplash; here’s our story, from reporters Andrew J. Campa, Joseph Serna and Phil Willon. In the meantime, there’s more extreme fire weather (and potentially power shutoffs) coming to Northern California, as Faith E. Pinho reports. Looking ahead to this winter, the forecast for California and the Southwest is warm and dry, which “raises the disturbing prospect of a perpetual fire season,” Paul Duginski writes.

There are millions of acres of fire-prevention projects ready to go in the West, just waiting for federal funding. This may sound crazy, given the amount of money the federal government spends every year fighting wildfires, but it is absolutely true. My Washington, D.C.-based colleague Anna M. Phillips wrote about the ever-growing backlog of forest management projects that would help limit wildfire devastation if only Congress would pony up the money for the U.S. Forest Service to pay for them.

You probably already know there are stark differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on climate. But what would it mean for California if there’s a new president elected the week after next? Evan Halper and Anna M. Phillips took a shot at answering that question, writing that a national focus on correcting environmental injustices would be one of the biggest changes.

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ALL ABOUT CLEAN ENERGY

How realistic are airplanes powered by clean-burning hydrogen? My colleague Samantha Masunaga examined some of the startups and technology development efforts by established companies, finding a lot of promising ideas but nothing close to commercialization. Still, in England, a hydrogen fuel-cell plane recently completed its first flight, CNBC’s Anmar Frangoul reports.

Oregon’s last coal plant has shut down, 20 years ahead of schedule. Portland General Electric closed the Boardman plant as part of an agreement to reduce air pollution and planet-warming emissions, the Oregonian’s Kale Williams reports. Boardman is only the latest coal-burning power plant to shutter as cleaner energy outcompetes coal in the marketplace; there’s now just one coal plant left in the West Coast states, the Centralia facility in Washington, which is scheduled to fully shut down in 2025.

Remember back in 2015, when The Times and InsideClimate News both reported groundbreaking stories showing the oil giant Exxon knew about climate change for decades and nonetheless tried to spread doubt? Well, the independent journalist Emily Atkin reports in her Heated newsletter that the company is still going to great lengths to try to discredit that narrative.

AROUND THE WEST

The California Fish and Game Commission granted temporary endangered species status to the Mojave desert tortoise.
The California Fish and Game Commission granted temporary endangered species status to the Mojave desert tortoise.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

California granted tentative endangered species status to the Mojave desert tortoise. The upgrade from “threatened” to “endangered” reflects risks that include urban encroachment, hungry ravens and solar farms, Louis Sahagun reports. Also in the California desert, conservationists are gearing up to campaign for a new national monument that would protect much of the land between Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, as Daria Sokolova reports for the Pahrump Valley Times.

Another Dust Bowl could be on the horizon. A new study finds that dust storms on the Great Plains are becoming more common and more intense, with drought and heat fueled by climate change a likely culprit, as Roland Pease reports for Science Magazine. The results “suggest a tipping point is approaching, where the conditions of the 1930s could return,” the study’s lead author said.

Montana has a unique law granting public access to most of the state’s rivers and streams, even if they’re surrounded by private property. The Republican candidate for governor, Greg Gianforte, may try to diminish that public access, Wes Siler writes for Outside Magazine. (In case you forgot, Gianforte body-slammed a journalist during his successful run for Congress in 2017.)

What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

The coolest thing I read this week was this story in Smithsonian Magazine, by Livia Gershon, about the discovery of fossilized footprints in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. The well-preserved tracks tell a clear story — or at least it was clear to the scientists who studied them — from more than 10,000 years ago, about an adult woman (or maybe an adolescent boy) carrying a toddler for nearly a mile. They seemed to be seeking safety amid a landscape traversed by mammoths and giant sloths.

“Prints left by a sloth suggest the animal was aware of the humans who had passed the same way before it,” Gershon writes. “As the sloth approached the trackway, it reared up on its hind legs to sniff for danger before moving forward.”

Hard to beat a story like that.

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