Reducing global wildfires key to fighting climate change

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

In 2019, widespread fires, particularly in the tropical forests of Brazil and Indonesia, were at the center of media attention. NGOs, politicians and celebrities called for action to stop deforestation for soy and livestock, the main cause of the fires. In Indonesia, extensive blazes were also linked to deforestation for palm oil. Forests capture carbon, retaining vast amounts and regulating global temperatures. Last year, fires in Indonesia emitted at least 708 million tons of CO2e, with Brazil emitting about 350 million. And this year, the number of forest fires in the world’s largest tropical wetlands in Brazil, the Pantanal, tripled compared to 2019. These wetlands are some of the most biodiverse in the world.

Fires release the stored CO2 back into the atmosphere, contributing to further climate change. While increased forest conversions and forest degradation have inflated wildfire incidence and risk, climate change has exacerbated the trend of large fires and contributed to the lengthening of the fire season, in some cases making wildfires a year-round phenomenon. In the Western U.S., climate change is a major driver behind the near doubling of burned areas over the past 35 years, and has contributed to an increase in the frequency and severity of fires, while lengthening the fire season in some regions.

The current crisis is leading to a significant increase in emissions globally. Cumulative active fire detections from the fire season in 2019 from MODIS (Aqua + Terra) and VIIRS (SNPP) confirm that the 2019 fire season in the Amazon had the highest fire count since 2012, the start of the VIIRS record. In addition, fires in 2019 were more intense than previous years. Overall, 2019 saw an increase in global wildfires, with major fires in Angola, Bolivia, DR Congo, Zambia and Russia warranting national and international attention.

"With the new fire season underway in 2020, we have a renewed opportunity and obligation to address the connections between wildfires, climate change and human activity and to take steps to interrupt this vicious cycle," says Johan Kieft, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) peatland expert and also the lead technical adviser for the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia

The reciprocal link between fire and climate

Climate change is priming ecosystems in Asia and Latin America to burn, while climate disasters like drought, rising temperatures and hurricanes compound wildfire risk and spread. Drought is a natural occurrence; however, with climate change and the subsequent rising temperatures, we now have worsening droughts. The burning of trees, dead biomass and soil sends huge pulses of carbon into the atmosphere. In peatlands, which are composed of thick layers of partly decomposed organic material formed over thousands of years, drainage increases fire risks and stored carbon becomes integrated into soil, the largest land carbon pool, through plant roots and dead plants. These processes take time, and the buildup of carbon stores is gradual. However, when fire roars through a peatland forest, all of this goes up in smoke.

Forest fires and deforestation in the Amazon have had negative consequences for climate, biodiversity and regional rainfall patterns, and they undermine achievements in Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), in particular with regards to communicable diseases and weakening economies in Brazil, Bolivia and Indonesia.

As environmental issues remain largely unaddressed, some governments are considering restrictions on forest-risk commodities. Growing concerns over the environment and climate change, along with international accords like the Paris Agreement, have led to tighter restrictions on agricultural commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil. In 2019, the European Parliament called on the EU to block beef that may be linked to deforestation in Brazil. As concerns over deforestation and fires grow, producers may face market access risks to important areas such as the EU.

In many countries, wildfires are insufficiently acknowledged as a key source of emissions, hobbling efforts to fight climate change and curb emissions. Integrated fire management is a critical element in curbing emissions more effectively, as banning fires is politically challenging and impossible without technical alternatives in place.

As some countries have proven, evidence-based policy development is key to controlling wildfires. Many countries do not fully appreciate the ecological, social, cultural or economic impact the fires are having, and the contributing factors and underlying causes of the fire problem. This requires making land users, such as smallholders and forestry companies, among others, more responsible for better control of fires by putting the right incentives and disincentives in place. The case of the recent, UNEP-supported Indonesian cluster system is a good example of how these resources can be combined to achieve the investment levels necessary to effectively manage fires at a lower cost. In the Amazon, fire policy reform should enable more effective wildfire control, as the experience in Tanzania shows, where early burning practices are introduced. This is a critical element of an effective REDD+ programme as part of each country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). REDD+ is underway in southeastern Tanzania, introducing early burning practices to reduce the number and (heat) intensity of wild and late-season fires.

It is globally critical that the importance of wildfires as a key source of emissions is acknowledged. And that fire management is an important part of NDCs. We need to make international climate finance resources and impact financing available to countries to improve and move towards more incentive-based, integrated fire management. With evidence mounting linking wildfire-related haze exposure and Covid, integrated wildfire management has to be at the core of REDD+ result-based payments for emission reductions and as a key REDD+ Policy Activity Measure to ensure climate effective REDD+ results.


Johan Kieft

a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) peatland expert, is also the lead technical adviser for the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia

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