Forest fires make climate change worse in several ways - Dr. Richard Dixon

After large fires in Siberia, the Amazon region, California and Scandinavia, huge forest fires in Australia emit enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, writes Dr. Richard Dixon.

The earth breathes. Looking at the main gas of climate change, carbon dioxide, it is higher in winter over the course of a year and lower in early spring than in summer and autumn. This is because there is more land and therefore more trees in the northern hemisphere. So in the northern spring there is a growth spurt that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, most of which returns when the leaves fall and decompose later in the year.


The average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases every year as we burn more fossil fuels and lose more forest. While the graphic is wavy, it keeps rising. The annual mean is now 50 percent higher than before the industrial revolution. This additional gas traps the sun’s warmth and has made our planet warmer than 1 ° C than it should be.

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Healthy forests are essential to stop climate change. Increasing forest cover could slow climate change, but deforested or burned forests exacerbate the problem.

Forests in flames are a double blow. When the trees are on fire, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for a short time, accelerating climate change – the last thing we need. And if new vegetation and trees don’t re-establish themselves, they’re not there to contain future emissions as they grow.

Massive carbon dioxide tip

We’re only at the beginning of the Australian fire season, but the big fires there have added an estimated 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than Spain’s total annual emissions and more than 70 percent of Australia’s total fossil fuel emissions.

It will take decades for trees that grow back to absorb this impulse of pollution. In many areas, however, the new, hotter and drier conditions in Australia mean that trees no longer grow as they were or at all.

These bushfires have now estimated to have killed a billion wildlife, as well as millions of cattle and other cattle. The death toll in humans is close to 30, and thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed.

The dust from the fires has traveled 2,000 kilometers to color the New Zealand glaciers pink. Climate change means that these glaciers are already melting, but bad feedback means that the darkening of their surface’s dust causes them to melt even faster.

Fires in Siberia, Amazon, Scandinavia, California

Of course, the massive fires in Australia followed fires the size of Belgium, Siberia and the Amazon last summer and major fires in Scandinavia and California the previous year.

Meanwhile, the Australian government continues to downplay the role of climate change to create the conditions under which violent fires raged across much of the country, although 2019 was the hottest and driest year ever recorded in Australia. They continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry in the tens of billions. And they continue to try to fill a gap in international climate change agreements, which means that they don’t have to put in too much effort to achieve future goals, as they are far from meeting the 2015 climate pledges.

As the planet gasps, the recent blaze of flames around the world is a warning of what may become the new normal, and it must be the wake-up call to prevent the situation from deteriorating significantly.

Dr. Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland