KATOWICE, Poland — Here’s what seems like an easy way to combat global warming: plant lots of trees to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
It’s an idea favored by many forested countries including Poland, the host of this year’s global COP24 climate conference.
The problem? Climate change is making wildfires more frequent and more ferocious — sending lots of those carbon-absorbing trees up in smoke.
“Human-induced climate change is fueling fires, fires speed up climate change — it’s time to break the cycle,” said Anton Beneslavskiy with Greenpeace Russia.
According to the Joint Research Center, the European Commission’s research arm, there were 496 large wildfires across the EU between January 1 and August 6 this year — a 36 percent increase compared with the 10-year average for that period.
“The hot and dry conditions induced by climate change result in more severe fires and a higher frequency of small fires growing to become uncontrollable,” another JRC report found.
That’s an issue for forest advocates in Katowice, as the Polish presidency promotes the role of trees in the fight against climate change.
“During COP24 Poland wants to show other countries how to achieve a balance between emissions and removals, using innovative solutions in the field of forest management and the natural process of CO2 absorption by soils and forests,” says the Polish statement.
The Poles fought hard to include emissions abatement through forests in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Warsaw and its forested allies argue that without such measures there is no way to bring greenhouse gas pollution under control without paying an impossible economic price.
Jan Szyszko, Poland’s controversial former environment minister, appeared at a COP24 side event on Tuesday to argue that the cost of removing a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere is only €2.50 when done by forests — compared to the EU emissions permit price of almost €20 per ton. He argued that the money saved could be plowed into projects like greening the Sahara desert to get it to absorb more CO2.
But environmental groups see the Polish enthusiasm for forests as a way of doing as little as possible to cut emissions from activities like coal-fired power stations, and worry that the Poles want to burn more lumber in power plants as a biofuel — also causing emissions.
“The Polish agenda behind this declaration … falls in line with a broader push to offset continuing fossil emissions and expand the use of bioenergy ‘combustion technology’ that will replace fossils — fueling the hunger for biomass and biofuels — and lead to a decrease in natural carbon stocks,” said the Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance, a grouping of NGOs.
Forests also play a major part in the EU’s future climate strategy, which the Commission published in late November and charts a path toward absorbing as much greenhouse gas as is emitted by 2050.
But this summer’s forest fires put those plans in jeopardy.
Normally boggy Scandinavian forests near the Arctic Circle went up in flames, as did forests in Greece, where a period of national mourning was declared.
The U.S. West Coast also saw massive forest fires, although the damage in California did little to change the climate skeptic views of U.S. President Donald Trump. According to California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection it was the most destructive wildfire season on record.
“Fire is part of a natural cycle in California [but] those fires are no longer natural,” Bishop Marc Handley Andrus of the U.S. Episcopal Church, said in Katowice. “Our tree population is under stress due to drought. This is a global effect, it’s not a local effect.”
That’s bad news for global efforts to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goals, since burning forests spew greenhouse gas emissions back into the atmosphere, helping drive climate change.
Greenpeace International last Wednesday published a report warning that wildfires have a large impact on climate change, and major forest countries Russia, Brazil and Indonesia “fail to adequately monitor or report emissions from them.”
Scientists also caution that planting trees is no panacea for more painful and expensive actions to actually cut emissions from industry, transport and housing.
“Forests shouldn’t be an excuse for rich countries to slow emissions reduction efforts,” said Glen Peters, research director with Norway’s Cicero International Center for Climate Research.
This summer’s infernos are likely to be repeated as the world continues to get warmer.
The EU’s JRC found “a clear trend towards longer fire seasons compared to previous years, with fires now occurring well beyond the dry and hot summer months” from July to September and in countries such as Sweden, Germany and Poland, “which have historically seen very few.”