Report

Global wildfires, carbon emissions and the changing climate

6 Dec 2013
Description

This paper provides an overview of current global wildfire carbon emissions and considers future projections and impacts.

Summary

As the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) enters its final week in Warsaw, nations are struggling to agree on mechanisms to encourage reductions in fossil fuel emissions and halt the progress of potentially catastrophic changes to the global climate. A factor rarely considered in these climate talks and in emission reduction strategies is the greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution of wildfires. Every year, wildfires ravage an area of the planet larger than India, rapidly releasing huge pulses of GHGs into the atmosphere. Deforestation-related fire is an important factor inflating the global burden of carbon emissions and climate change. In recent years there has been a rise in the global incidence of large, uncontrolled fires which is expected to accelerate in the future as a result of rising global temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. While wildfires are a global scale environmental process, they are also heavily influenced by human land-management decisions. Changing land-management techniques in savannah and scrubland could dramatically decrease the risk of large, carbon emitting fires, reducing the global GHG burden. This paper will provide an overview of current global wildfire carbon emissions and consider future projections and impacts.

Key point:

  • Wildfires release considerable quantities of carbon into the air when they burn vegetation and are an important factor inflating the global burden of carbon emissions.
  • Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million hectares of forest and grassland every year. This is equivalent to around 3.85% of global land area.
  • Carbon emissions from all sources of fire amount to between 2 and 4 billion tonnes each year, about half of those from fossil fuel combustion.
  • Carbon emissions from fires create a feedback effect on the climate. Fires release carbon and other GHGs, causing temperatures to rise faster and higher. This further dries out forests and creates conditions that increase the likelihood of fire.
  • Changing land-management techniques in savannah and scrubland could dramatically decrease the risk of large, carbon emitting fires, reducing the global GHG burden.
Publication Details
Published year only: 
2013
6
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