Can Carbon Markets Help Reduce Forest Fires?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared at Ecosystem Marketplace and is reprinted with permission.]

Matthew Hurteau has spent much of his career examining the relationship between a forest’s structure and its tendency to burn. An assistant research professor and forest ecologist at the University of Northern Arizona, he recently took a look at forests that have been managed to reduce tree crowding and remove dead wood, and compared them to forests that had been left alone. He wanted to see if trimming a forest reduced the amount of carbon it pumps into the atmosphere during a fire.

“The research I’ve done with my colleagues suggests there’s a substantial reduction in the risk of carbon stock loss due to fire,” he says. “However, if you treat an area that never burns, you reduce the carbon stock and there’s no avoided emissions benefit.”

And that, he says, presents a challenge when trying to determine whether carbon payments should be used to trim forests and reduce emissions from forest fires.

“With regard to wildfire mitigation treatments in frequent-fire forests we’re really talking about tradeoffs between maximizing the carbon stock and stabilizing it,” he says.

It’s no idle question, because wildfires in the United States have become larger in area and more severe, with a record-breaking number of fires and acres burned in 2006. In the last 10 years, these fires have consumed more than 49 million acres of forest in the United States alone, and federal agencies have spent more than $8.2 billion fighting them.

With these uncharacteristically large and intense fires come unprecedented greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research examined the relative size of these wildfire emissions compared to the industrial sector’s emissions, and found that a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state. In another study, the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (WESTCARB) identified emissions from fire as the single largest source of GHG emissions from land use.

The burning question here is: Can GHG emissions from wildfire be reduced by forest management, and if so, could tapping into the emerging carbon markets help provide much-needed funding for wildfire prevention activities? 

Numerous recent scientific studies have emerged on this issue in recent years, and different research methodologies have yielded different results. However, the general consensus that now appears to be emerging from researchers is that without new technologies or enhanced techniques for managing forests and predicting the location of future wildfires, the potential to reward landowners for avoided emissions is minimal.

The Roots Run Deep

The modern wildfire crisis can be traced back more than 100 years. Responding to the Great Idaho fires of 1910, a national policy to control and extinguish forest fires as quickly as possible was rapidly developed and has dominated the land management arena at the state and national level ever since.