Climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires “more frequent and intense”, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14 per cent by 2030, 30 per cent by the end of 2050 and 50 per cent by the end of the century, according to a new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and GRID-Arendal.
UNEP is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.
GRID-Arendal is a non-profit environmental communications centre based in Norway. It aims to transform environmental data into innovative, science-based information products and provide capacity-building services that enable better environmental governance.
The report was released before the resumed 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) convenes in Nairobi, between 28 February 28 and March 2.
Sounding the alarm
The report, released on Wednesday, states that the Arctic, “previously all but immune”, faces rising wildfire risk.
Experts, who are alerting the world ahead of the upcoming UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, said wildfires and climate change are “mutually exacerbating”
“Governments are called to radically shift their investments in wildfires to focus on prevention and preparedness,” they added
In Nigeria, the wildfire hazard is classified as high according to the information that is currently available to scientists.
This means that there “is greater than a 50 per cent chance of encountering weather that could support a significant wildfire that is likely to result in both life and property loss in any given year”.
The paper called for a radical change in government spending on wildfires, shifting their investments from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.
The report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, finds an elevated risk even for the Arctic and other regions previously unaffected by wildfires.
The publication calls on governments to adopt a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent.
To prevent fires, authors call for a combination of data and science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge and for stronger regional and international cooperation.
“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change”.
Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations. With an impact that extends for days, weeks and even years after the flames subside, they impede progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals and deepen social inequalities:
- People’s health is directly affected by inhaling wildfire smoke, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts and increased health effects for the most vulnerable;
- The economic costs of rebuilding after areas are struck by wildfires can be beyond the means of low-income countries;
- Watersheds are degraded by wildfires’ pollutants; they also can lead to soil erosion causing more problems for waterways;
- Wastes left behind are often highly contaminated and require appropriate disposal.
Wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating. Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, climate change is made worse by wildfires, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.
Wildlife and its natural habitats are rarely spared from wildfires, pushing some animal and plant species closer to extinction. A recent example is the Australian 2020 bushfires, which are estimated to have wiped out billions of domesticated and wild animals.
There is a critical need to better understand the behaviour of wildfires. Achieving and sustaining adaptive land and fire management requires a combination of policies, a legal framework and incentives that encourage appropriate land and fire use.
The restoration of ecosystems is an important avenue to mitigate the risk of wildfires before they occur and to build back better in their aftermath. Wetlands restoration and the reintroduction of species such as beavers, peatlands restoration, building at a distance from vegetation and preserving open space buffers are some examples of the essential investments into prevention, preparedness and recovery.
The report concludes with a call for stronger international standards for the safety and health of firefighters and for minimising the risks that they face before, during and after operations. This includes raising awareness of the risks of smoke inhalation, minimising the potential for life-threatening entrapments, and providing firefighters with access to adequate hydration, nutrition, rest, and recovery between shifts.
The report was commissioned in support of UNREDD and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. UNEP will be exploring how further investments can be made to reduce fire risks in critical ecosystems around the world.
UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 is a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems all around the world, for the benefit of people and nature. It aims to halt the degradation of ecosystems and restore them to achieve global goals. The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed the UN Decade and it is led by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. The UN Decade is building a strong, broad-based global movement to ramp up restoration and put the world on track for a sustainable future. That will include building political momentum for restoration as well as thousands of initiatives on the ground.
UNEP@50: A time to reflect on the past and envision the future
The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, was the first-ever UN conference with the word “environment” in its title. The creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was one of the most visible outcomes of this conference of many firsts. UNEP was created quite simply to be the environmental conscience of the UN and the world. Activities taking place through 2022 will look at the significant progress made as well as what’s ahead in decades to come.
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