The number of wildfires is expected to increase by almost 15 per cent by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2050, found a UNEP-backed report released earlier this year. Even areas not normally thought of as fire-prone, such as wetlands and the Arctic, are at risk of going up in flames.
The report shows that wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating – a topic on the agenda this week at the UN Climate Conference in Egypt (COP27).
Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought and strong winds resulting in hotter and longer fire seasons. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems.
Wildfires in peatlands can be especially problematic. Most of these are started by draining and burning peatlands for commercial agriculture and livestock use.
While peatlands cover less than 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface, they are the largest terrestrial warehouse of organic carbon and their burning releases the very greenhouse gases that are driving the climate crisis.
“The only permanent and sustainable way of preventing peat fires is to raise water levels and find ways to use the land while it remains wet,” said Johan Kieft, a UNEP peatland expert.
There are several recent examples of countries that have made progress in combating wildfires.
In Indonesia, where a series of wildfires impacted the health of thousands of people and caused $16 billion in losses in 2015, the government is working with 150 communities to train local communities in how to clear land without resorting to fires. The work, which includes restoring degraded landscapes, has been supported by the UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries(UN-REDD).
Peatland monitoring processes were also used to prevent fires from happening again.
As the climate changes, countries will need to divert more money towards planning for and preventing wildfires, found the UNEP report, Spreading Like Wildfire. Right now, half of wildfire spending goes to responding to blazes; just 1 per cent is used for planning.
“We need to devote more resources to stopping fires before they happen,” said Alvarez. “If we don’t, the emerging science suggests it’s going to be bad for the health of people around the world.”
About the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration: The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. It can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction. It will only succeed if everyone plays a part. Find out more about what you can do to be part of #GenerationRestoration
About the UN-REDD Programme: The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) is the UN knowledge and advisory platform on the forest solutions to the climate crisis. The goal is to help realise forest solutions to the climate emergency by avoiding carbon emissions and fostering carbon sequestration.
About the UN Climate Conference (COP27): UNEP is at the front in support of the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global temperature rise well below 2°C and aiming – to be safe – for 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed a Six-Sector Solution roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors are Energy; Industry; Agriculture and Food; Forests and Land Use; Transport, and Buildings and Cities. COP27 in November 2022 is focusing on adaptation, finance and a just transition – and you can do your part by acting now on your own consumption or speaking up to voice your concerns.
Visit UNEP’s COP27 featured updates for more information.
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