The series of wildfires that blazed through California in the recent two years killed thousands of giant sequoias. Experts estimate last year’s Castle fire destroyed as many as 10,600 giant sequoias, which make up almost 14% of the entire sequoia population. Even though giant sequoias are resistant to wildfires and can live up to 3,000 years, the repeated infernos caused by climate change are putting them in danger. In return, the considerable amount of carbon dioxide emitted through the forest fires puts another obstacle towards the greenhouse gas pollution reduction pledge made by the United States at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26 summit).
On April 22, 2021 President Biden set 2030 as the new target year to reduce economy-wide net greenhouse emission by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels - and the burning forests are not helping this goal. From June to August 2021, California fires released over 75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, surpassing the emission of any other summer in the past nearly two decades. In 2020, wildfire emissions in California were comparable to the amount of 24 million cars.
Scientists around the world are working nonstop to save the sequoias and our forests. In California, as many as 10,000 trees will be removed along the highway as a preventative measure for further damage from the KNP Complex blazes. Other scientists suggest controlled low-grade fires should be set to clear out fire hazards in the forests to prevent bigger fires. China has pledged to plant 36,000 squares kilometers of new forest a year from 2021 to 2025-more than the size of Belgium. The momentum for this goal stems from the 1978 “the Great Green Wall,” initiative, which is the largest tree-planting project in human history. China updated its Paris Agreement targets, promising to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030. This is part of the country’s plan to reach net-zero carbon emission by 2060.
Today, the United States and China are cooperating on more environmental initiatives as the awareness to counter climate change rises. In California, Yosemite National Park has sister-park relationships with Huangshan and Jiuzhaigou National Parks in China to collaborate on the shared challenges the parks face, such as climate change and forest protection. At a national level, the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s lays out how both countries are committed to work together to strengthen the implementation of the Paris Agreement. On April 17, 2021 the US Department of State released a U.S.-China Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis, in which both countries agreed to “strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement” together. Although it might only be a small step of collaboration for the two countries, it is a big step towards cutting carbon emissions on a global level.
Oscar Langsha Tao is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a second-year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Chicago.