Wildfires make climate change worse in more ways than one – Dr Richard Dixon

Vast wildfires in Australia, following major fires in Siberia, the Amazon, California and Scandinivia send enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, writes Dr Richard Dixon.
Firefighter Trevor Stewart watches a fire on in Tumburumba, Australia, on Saturday (Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)Firefighter Trevor Stewart watches a fire on in Tumburumba, Australia, on Saturday (Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Firefighter Trevor Stewart watches a fire on in Tumburumba, Australia, on Saturday (Picture: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

The Earth breathes. If you look at the main climate change gas, carbon dioxide, over the course of a year it is higher in the winter and early spring and lower in the summer and autumn. This is because there is more land, and therefore there are more trees, in the northern hemisphere, so in the northern spring there is a growth spurt which takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, with most of it returning as the leaves fall and decompose later in the year.

The average level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing year-on-year as we burn more fossil fuels and lose more forest, so while the graph undulates it climbs ever upwards. The annual average measurement is now 50 per cent higher than levels before the industrial revolution. That extra gas is what traps the Sun’s heat and has driven our planet to more than 1C warmer than it should be.

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Healthy forests are vital in holding back climate change; increasing forest cover could help slow climate change but forests which are cut down or burned make the problem worse.

Forests on fire are a double whammy. As the trees burn, they release a short-term pulse of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, accelerating climate change – the last thing we need. And, unless new vegetation and trees re-establish themselves strongly, they are not there to lock up future emissions as they grow.

Massive carbon dioxide spike

We are only at the start of the Australian fire season, but the huge fires there are estimated to have added 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than Spain’s total annual emissions, and adding more than 70 per cent to the total annual emissions from fossil fuel use in Australia.

It will take decades for trees growing back to absorb this pulse of pollution but in many areas the new hotter, drier conditions in Australia mean that trees will not grow back as they were or even at all.

Those bushfires have now killed an estimated one billion wild animals, as well millions of cattle and other livestock. The human death toll stands at nearly 30 and thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed.

Dust from the fires has travelled 2,000 kilometre to turn the glaciers of New Zealand pink. Climate change means these glaciers are already melting but a nasty bit of feedback means the dust-darkening of their surface will make them melt even faster.

Fires in Siberia, Amazon, Scandinavia, California

Of course, the huge fires in Australia follow on from fires, the size of Belgium, in Siberia and in the Amazon last summer, and significant fires in Scandinavia and California the year before.

Meanwhile the Australian government continues to play down the role of climate change in creating the conditions which have enabled the huge fires currently raging across large parts of the country, despite 2019 being the hottest and driest year ever recorded in Australia. They continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. And they are also continuing to try get a loophole into international climate agreements that would mean they would not have to try too hard to meet any future target, since they are well off track to meeting the climate promises they made in 2015.

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As the planet gasps, the recent spate of fires around the world is a warning of what may become the new normal, and they need to be the wake up call to act to avoid things getting considerably worse.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland