Perfect storm: when climate change stokes wildfires, marine heatwaves and biodiversity loss
Published On: 16 January 2020
Photo by the UN-REDD Programme
2020 is a crunch year for decision makers tackling the biodiversity and climate change emergencies and for humanity as a whole to start paying attention to the breakdown of our planetary systems. The year will host two major events, known as “conferences of parties,” on biodiversity and climate. The biodiversity conference will agree a new set of goals for nature for the next decade.
“While wildfires can be part of some ecosystems, human-induced climate change is making them more frequent, larger and more widespread. The increase of forest fires has a dual impact on biodiversity and climate,” says Pascal Peduzzi, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-Global Resource Information Database in Geneva and programme manager of the UNEP World Environment Situation Room.
Forest fire in Almora District, Uttarakhand, in the Indian Himalayas, 2016. Photo by Wilimedia
The unprecedented wildfires in southwestern Australia, during a summer which has seen record temperatures, drought and high winds. Some estimates say more than a billion animals have been killed, with many injured and/or short of food and water.
A 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on Australasia says: “The regional climate is changing (very high confidence). The region continues to demonstrate long-term trends toward higher surface air and sea surface temperatures, more hot extremes and fewer cold extremes, and changed rainfall patterns. Over the past 50 years, increasing greenhouse gas concentrations have contributed to rising average temperature in Australia (high confidence) and New Zealand, and decreasing rainfall in southwestern Australia (high confidence).”
The climate crisis is with us now and getting worse. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2019 warns that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
Australia is not the only country to have experienced a serious wildfire recently. Widespread wildfires have occurred in the past few years in forests in Indonesia, Portugal, California, and even the Arctic.
“Wildfires are expected to increase in many regions of the globe under a changing climate. Reducing forest-related greenhouse gas emissions is key to mitigating climate change,” says Johan Kieft, a UNEP ecosystems and wildfires expert.
“The forestry sector offers significant potential for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds.
The climate change impacts of forest fires have been largely overlooked in negotiations for REDD+,” says Kieft. “They are the missing link in countries’ plans to curb global heating.” What we need to do, he says, is account for integrated fire management in these plans, such as in the nationally determined contributions, set out in the Convention.
The world’s terrestrial biodiversity is concentrated in forests: they are home to more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. So, when forests burn, the biodiversity on which humans depend for their long-term survival also disappears in the inferno. With over 1 million species currently facing extinction if we continue with business as usual, weather events—from fires to severe droughts such those underway in Zimbabwe, to marine heatwaves that are causing mass destruction of corals—are become an increasing matter of concern for species survival.
Corals are home to 25 per cent of marine species. Photo by The Ocean Agency – XL Catlin Seaview Survey, 2016
Mass coral reef bleaching events have become five times more common worldwide over the past 40 years, new research finds, with climate change playing a significant role in the rise.
“It is estimated that 50 per cent of the world’s coral has died in the last 30 years, and this is projected to rise to up to 90 per cent with 1.5°C warming and up to 99 per cent with 2°C warming,” says Gabriel Grimsditch, UNEP’s coral expert.
“Human-induced heating is playing a role in the Australian wildfires. As such, deeper greenhouse gases emissions cuts are needed if we are to successfully contain or prevent future extreme wildfires,” says UNEP biodiversity expert Max Gomera.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030, led by the UN Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and partners such as the Africa Restoration 100 initiative, the Global Landscapes Forum and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, covers terrestrial as well as coastal and marine ecosystems. A global call to action, it will draw together political support, scientific research and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Help us shape the Decade.