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"Do We Need A Carbon Tax For California Wildfire’s CO2 Emissions?"

image credit: California wildfire
Ron Miller's picture
Principal, Reliant Energy Solutions LLC

Ron Miller is an energy industry expert creating value by analyzing assets, markets, and power usage to identify, monetize, and implement profitable energy and emission reduction projects. He is...

  • Member since 2020
  • 110 items added with 63,441 views
  • Mar 9, 2022

With all of the concern over climate change, emissions reduction from industry and transportation, there is one source of emissions that is currently getting a free pass – emissions from wildfires. California wildfires in 2020 were extraordinary, burning 4.4 million acres and spewing so much smoke that air quality has been affected thousands of miles away.

Sources of wildfire ignition:

  1. Lightning strike
  2. Unextinguished campfires
  3. Lit cigarette butts
  4. Improperly burned debris

Contributing factors to wildfires:

There are several contributing factors to wildfires, but only one in which we can be proactive.

  1. Lack of forest management for thinning before forests become a tinder box
  2. High summer temperatures
  3. Severe drought

Consequently, we should evaluate ways to incent behavior to get the preferred end result: less dead wood in our forests to reduce combustible fuel to start and intensify a potential forest wildfire.

Wildfire CO2 emissions:

From June through August 2021, California fires emitted twice as much CO2 as during the same period last year, and far more than any other summer in nearly two decades, per the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, a European Union-financed agency, which estimates emissions based on satellite measurements available since 2003. Over these three months, California fires released more than 75 million metric tons of CO2, or about 0.23% of annual worldwide CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Overall, 2021 wildfires in the Western United States released 130 million tons of CO2 or 0.4% of the emissions from fossil fuels.

In 2018, California wildfires emitted as much CO2 as an entire year's worth of electricity demand in the state. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data estimated the 2018 wildfire season in California released emissions equivalent to roughly 68 million tons of CO2, or about 15 percent of all California emissions, and it is on par with the annual emissions produced by generating enough electricity to power the entire state for a year. Wildfires are catastrophic in terms of dollars of destroyed property, but also for the environment and for the public's health.

How does the U.S. incent proper forest management to reduce the risk of wildfires, and lowering carbon emissions? Perhaps the time has come to tax states and federal agencies that do not take action to reduce forest CO2 emissions as a way of creating a cleaner environment. We see a carbon tax for fossil fuels, why not a carbon tax for poor forest management by states and the federal government?

Per National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) factsheets, wildfires release large amounts of CO2, black carbon, brown carbon, and ozone precursors into the atmosphere. This affects air quality due to the amount of volatile and semi-volatile organic materials and nitrogen oxides that form ozone and organic matter as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Wildfire emissions and downwind pollutants

Figure 2 demonstrates the key locations of U.S. wildfires, primarily in the western states.

Figure 2 - Key U.S. Wildfire Areas

Negative impact of Western wildfires:

There are a number of impacts of wildfires that endanger our lifestyle, from both an economic and environmental standpoint.

  1. Increased CO2 emissions
  2. Smoke production, regional air quality
  3. Smoke exposure
  4. Eye and respiratory tract irritation
  5. Increased hospital visits
  6. Poor air quality thousands of miles east of flames
  7. Increased PM2.5 (particle matter 2.5 microns)
  8. Loss of vegetation, storm-water runoff erosion
  9. Heavy metals from ash and soil infiltrating waterways


To quote Smokey The Bear (see Figure 3), “Only you can prevent forest fires.” But by preventing forest fires, we can also reduce CO2 emissions in tandem with CO2 reductions from fossil fuel use to improve U.S. air quality. Providing economic disincentives/penalties for not managing our forest land to prevent wildfires is but one tool to lower CO2 emissions for the U.S.

Copyright © March 2022 Ronald L. Miller All Rights Reserved

Figure 3 – Smokey’s Advice

Copyright © March 2022 Ronald L. Miller All Rights Reserved

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 9, 2022

Thanks for the thoughts, Ron-- reminds me of this Q&A that recently came in that perhaps you'd have some insights about as well:

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 9, 2022

Outstanding reality check.

Here in Minnesota our forests and grasslands are as thick as sheep wool. Our Department of Natural Resources does an outstanding job that also includes keeping fishermen and hunters happy. They are the real experts here, not me. Somehow, so far, they make California look silly.

My big theory is we need the proper tools to manage forests. I have a couple Allis Chalmers WD45 tractors that could gently gather my forest fuel hazards, but the 70 year old engines should be replaced with gear reduced (3 hp ?) electric motors. Those heavy old plow tractor frames only need to go 100 yards and 1 mph. My wife just purchased an electric battery chain saw to add to her electric battery jaw-saw. Tripping around in the brush with a big running gas chain saw is asking for trouble.

Finding suitable tools is a big problem. ATVs need to go 60 mph for the joy riders, not farmers. Proper wilderness management is an inspiring learning experience. To preserve, protect and enhance nature needs a new toolbox.

Graeme Tychsen's picture
Graeme Tychsen on Mar 14, 2022

"Severe drought", or enduring aridness, so far greater flammability?

Ron Miller's picture
Thank Ron for the Post!
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