Flammable Planet – that is the name of a recent report released by the Cost of Carbon Project on the threat posed by wildfires. It’s a must-read for anyone who doubts the importance of wildfire prevention not just as a means to protect lives and property, but also to curb climate change.
Each year wildfires burn 865 million acres of land globally, a full 3% of the world’s vegetated land. The scientific consensus is that this will only get worse as climate change leads to hotter temperatures and drier weather. In the US alone, the report estimates, the total cost of wildfires could already be as high as $125 billion annually, or almost .75% of GDP, and that is before a predicted 50 to 100 percent increase in area burned by 2050.
That wildfires may be costing America almost three-quarters of a cent on every dollar it earns might come as a shock, and it reveals the scale of the damage a wildfire can do. Some of that has to do with the fact that wildfires rarely make the list of most expensive or deadly natural disasters. But that is because calculating the true damage a wildfire does is much more complicated than it is for an earthquake or tornado. These damages go far beyond simply the initial area burned and include the long-term health effects of its emissions (globally, these are estimated to kill over 300,000 people a year), the loss of ecological services as well as the cost of suppressing a fire and rehabilitating the land after it has burned out. This report has properly factored those costs in for the first time.
The issues described in the report also make clear the threat wildfires pose to efforts around mitigating the effects of climate change. As with so many processes in the natural world, the relationship between wildfires and climate change is self-reinforcing. Climate change has increased the incidence and severity of wildfires, which in turn contribute to further climate change. Already, along with other biomass fires, wildfires emit more carbon than every car on every road in the world. They are particularly damaging because they turn forests, which have traditionally been carbon sinks, to carbon sources. In Canada, for instance, there is some evidence that forests are now net carbon emitters due to this.
It should be clear by now that investing in appropriate technologies to reduce the severity of wildfires is a global concern with huge potential rewards. Early detection is an essential part of the solution, because larger wildfires do exponentially more damage than smaller ones. In the U.S., 1% of fires required 94% of the suppression costs to extinguish. Catching fires before they spread out of control can therefore vastly reduce the amount of damage they do, and therefore the amount of carbon they emit.
Unlike most of climate change’s other nasty consequences, it will be developed countries – Australia, Europe and North America – that will be disproportionately affected by wildfire. That means lack of resources is not an excuse; it is only a question of recognising the threat and gathering the support to take appropriate action.