50% Rise In The Number Of Wildfires By 2100, According To Environmental Report

There will be a 50% rise in the number of wildfires by 2100, a joint report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and non-profit environmental organization GRID-Arendal warns. This will follow a 14% rise by 2030 and a 30% rise by 2050. The report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, highlights how wildfires have been increasing in frequency and intensity, a trend which is projected to continue over the next 30 years.

In a press release that accompanied the report, the UNEP highlighted how wildfires and climate change are “mutually exacerbating.” Climate change exacerbates wildfires, and wildfires exacerbate climate change. The increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires is associated with climate change, and the UNEP points specifically to how “increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightening, and strong winds” create conditions that provide the perfect storm for wildfires. The cycle continues as wildfires destroy landscapes and carbon-rich ecosystems, including rainforests, and release greenhouse gases, thus exacerbating climate change.

In addition to the direct impact upon the environment, wildfires also have an impact upon nearby communities. According to the UNEP, wildfires “disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations” and “impede progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals and deepen social inequalities.” The UNEP points specifically to the direct impact upon the respiratory and cardiovascular health of those who were in close proximity to wildfire and inhaled smoke, as well the economic cost related to the damage and destruction caused by wildfire. These costs, which are often unexpected, can result in funds being diverted from other important initiatives, such as health care and education programs.

Wildfires also contribute to the concerning new trend of forced migration related to climate change. “Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and disaster displacement one of its most devastating consequences,” according to the UN Refugee Agency. Wildfires cause short-term displacement when those in affected areas are forced to evacuate, and long-term displacement when homes and land are destroyed. Non-governmental organization Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported in September 2020 that the 2019-20 Australian bushfires destroyed 3,100 homes and caused 65,000 people to be displaced. Similarly, Reuters reported in October 2020 that wildfires across the west coast of the U.S. had destroyed 6 million acres of land and 500,000 people were either displaced or forced to prepare for displacement. According to the report, areas which have not historically been affected by wildfires are now at risk due to climate change, with the Arctic and the Amazon having experienced “record-breaking blazes in recent years.”

One of the key messages in the report is that governments are not adequately prepared or equipped to deal with wildfires, and it calls on governments to shift their approach. “Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place. Those emergency service workers and firefighters on the frontlines who are risking their lives to fight forest wildfires need to be supported,” stated UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen. “We have to minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared: invest more in fire risk reduction, work with local communities, and strengthen global commitment to fight climate change.”

The report was published in advance of the UN Environment Assembly, set to take place in Nairobi from the 28th of February to the 2nd of March. The key messages and findings within the report should be taken into serious consideration by the international community. Governments must rethink their contingency plans related to wildfires to help prevent an increase in internal and external displacement and social inequality, as well as to help limit further climate change.