More than a third of all global tree losses last year — 9.3 million hectares — were caused by forest fires, and the damage is expected to be even more widespread with climate change being the primary driver behind it, a new report says.
Analysis from the Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring platform, suggested that the amount of trees burnt down across the world has nearly doubled in the past two decades. Forest fires result in three million hectares of tree loss per year compared with 2001.
The increase in fire activity is likely to be driven by climate change, as the drier landscapes create the dry conditions for forest fires. The emissions released from these fires further exacerbate climate change as part of a “fire-climate feedback loop”, which have accounted for the recent devastating fires in France and elsewhere, the researchers said.
Northern high-latitude regions, which house boreal forests, have been most affected by forest fires. Though forest fires are a natural function of how these forests function, the regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world.
Nowhere is the devastation clearer than in Russia, which experienced an unprecedented loss of trees last year. The country accounted for 5.4 million of the 9.3 million hectares burnt globally. Russia's 31 per cent increase from 2020 was attributed to prolonged heatwaves that the Global Forest Watch said was “practically impossible” without human-influenced climate change.
Elsewhere, factors such as deforestation have made tropical forests more susceptible to wildfires.
In the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation hit a record high in January, fires used to clear land after trees have been cut down can encroach into surrounding forests.
“As a result, almost all fires that occur in the tropics are started by people, rather than sparked by natural ignition sources like lightning strikes,” the report said.
Fires accounted for nearly half of tree losses in the Amazon in 2016-17, suggesting that the rainforest could be reaching a climate tipping point. This means it could emit more carbon than it stores, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change.
Forests are critical to the environment because of their ability to store carbon and keep the planet from warming. They also act as effective air-filtration systems and provide habitats for myriad animal species.
Any solution to reduce fire activity would have to include drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the researchers said. Scientists also called for limiting burning fields and ending deforestation. Doing so, they said, would make forests more resilient.
World leaders at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year pledged to reverse deforestation in an effort to restrict global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed into law a climate and social spending bill that Democrats say will reduce US gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. However, that falls short of Mr Biden's goal of reducing emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030.