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The 2023 edition of the International Day of Forests took place on 21 March 2023 - only a month after Chile was struck by the worst wildfires in years (30 times more Chilean forests areas burnt compared to the average annual area burnt between 2001 and 2021). Aggravated by a severe drought and high wind, these fires burned 430,000 hectares of forests. And while this disastrous event is one of many in the longer sequence of fires to have spread globally over recent years, it is representative of the increasing impacts of climate change globally – and of the risk they pose to our forests.
Covering one-third of our Earth’s surface, forests provide livelihoods for one-fifth of the world’s population. They contribute to cleaning the air and water, reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases, and are critical in strengthening climate resilience more broadly. Furthermore, ecosystem services derived from forests are estimated to generate an economic value of approximately 16 trillion USD every year. Forests are also home to some of the world’s most diverse animal species.
Forests are increasingly degraded, which amplifies global climate change
And yet, since the 1990s, no less than 420 million hectares of forests have been destroyed due to economic development and urbanisation. Every second, the equivalent of one soccer field of tropical forests disappears. Deforestation now represents 20% of human carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and changes to forests have transformed some woodland areas from carbon sinks to sources of carbon emissions. It’s notably the case for the Amazon Forest, which covers 6 million km2 - an area larger than the entirety of the EU. Long described as the planet's lungs, it is estimated to have emitted about a billion tons of C02 per year since 2021.
There is a net tendency for deforestation compared to forest expansion worldwide, especially in the Amazon rainforest (40% of the world’s tropical forests). Source: Our world in data
In turn, climate change accentuates pressures on forests
Exacerbated by climate change, droughts also contribute to a staggering rate of tree mortality all over the globe. In the Amazon region, for example, the combined effect of global warming and deforestation may push the forest to cross a so-called tipping point and become as dry as a savannah. As emphasised by the IPCC, this could happen if deforestation reaches 20 to 25% of its original area. In addition, it is estimated that global warming has increased the wildfire season for 25% of the impacted areas since 1979. Wildfires are responsible for more than a quarter of the total forest loss since the beginning of the century and over the last 20 years, tree cover lost due to fires amount to 119 million hectares, which is more than the area of China. Recent extreme wildfire events have been largely attributed to climate change, including the 2019 Bushfires in Australia and the 2018 Campfires in California. And this trend is likely to only get worse. In its latest report, the IPCC predicts that a +2°C climate scenario will increase the burned land areas by 35%. These trends may vary depending on underlying climate scenarios, but every single one of them predicts an increase in both the frequency and the severity of wildfires.
This map shows the global tree cover loss due to fires from 2001 to 2021. Russia, Canada, the United States, Brazil and Australia are the 5 countries whose forests cover is most impacted by fires (green: forest cover and red: forest lost due to fires). Credit: Global Forest watch.
While wildfires are a natural component of many ecosystems and can deliver positive benefits in certain cases, this is different for extreme fires. Extreme wildfires cause irreversible damage to certain species, their habitats and ecosystem services – to the point where desertification will follow as opposed to natural reforestation. Extreme fires are also hard to suppress, their unpredictable nature making it challenging to protect people, homes, businesses and infrastructure assets.
Wildfire-induced losses and damages can be better contained, but this will require a fundamental shift away from focusing on fire suppression, and towards reducing fire risk at its source.
However, the spread of wildfires is influenced by policy responses. Wildfire-induced losses and damages can be better contained, but this will require a fundamental shift away from focusing on fire suppression, and towards reducing fire risk at its source. Such shift consists of better adapting our forests to changing climatic conditions (e.g. through changing species planted) or through removing the amount of dead wood, which fuels wildfires. Such measures also aim at improving land use development decisions to reduce the exposure of communities and economic activities to wildfires.
Given the essential role of forests for health, climate and water regulation, food security or resilience to natural hazards, we simply cannot afford to let them go up in smoke. It is high time to strengthen forests’ resilience to the growing impacts of climate change. The OECD launched a new report on adapting the management of wildfires to a changing climate on May 17th 2023 as a contribution to the 9th Wildland Fire Conference taking place in Porto. The report assesses the global state of play in climate change-induced extreme wildfires and explores the challenges faced by countries in promoting a paradigm shift in wildfire management and offers policy recommendations to support countries’ work going forward.
And read more on the Forum Network: Net zero is not enough to keep 1.5°C alive—we also need nature by Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International
We cannot solve the climate crisis without protecting and restoring our natural environment, explains Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International.