Wildfires, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change

Climate change Greenhouse gases Bushfires Carbon emissions

Until recently, carbon released into the atmosphere from wildfires was not considered a significant component of atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG). It was assumed that over the climatic cycle this carbon would be sequestered back into vegetative re-growth. In Australia this may well be the case. A recent report released by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, concluded that based on existing evidence, "… bushfires release significant amounts of carbon dioxide, but generally recover over time, generating a significant carbon sink in the years following the fire."

Globally, however, a growing body of evidence now suggests that carbon produced by wildfires is making a significant contribution to the volume of GHG in the atmosphere in both the short and long term. In the future, atmospheric carbon estimates should include wildfires as a significant GHG source and effort to reduce atmospheric carbon must include measures to curb wildfires.

Key points:

  • Until 2019 national greenhouse gas emission inventories did not include wildfires as they were considered carbon neutral over time.
  • Recent evidence indicates that as much as 10 per cent of wildfire produced carbon remains in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
  • Even in circumstances where carbon sequestering does achieve balanced levels, for around seven months of the year the carbon released by wildfires still contributes to the total amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
  • There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that, as the planet warms, wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense.
  • While measures to curb industrial greenhouse gas emissions have proved difficult and divisive, reductions achieved by the control of wildfires have been largely ignored and may provide a less controversial way of contributing greenhouse gas reductions.
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