23 Jan 2020 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

The effect of wildfires on sustainable development

Photo by UNREDD

With only 10 years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, world leaders in September 2019 called for accelerated action in the next decade to deliver at the scale and speed required. Climate change and global heating however, are increasing the likelihood and intensity of wildfires, which could have a growing impact on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, the 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season came at the end of the second hottest year on record, with multiple record high temperatures experienced across Australia at the beginning of its wildfire season. This has created far more flammable conditions than usual, leading to multiple megafires and a total burned area said to be over 18 million hectares (186,000 square kilometres, an area bigger than England and Wales).

In addition to the widely reported impact in terms of immediate loss of life, homes and animals in developed parts of the world, the growing scale of wildfires around the world can also have serious impacts on a number of the Sustainable Development Goals.

GOAL 1: No poverty and GOAL 2: Zero hunger
The poor are often hit hardest by global heating. They are the ones least able to adapt; they also tend to be more heavily reliant on natural resources, such as firewood, forest-based plant food and medicines. Forests provide food and medicines for indigenous peoples and many others. Many people’s livelihoods, especially in developing countries, depend on intact forest resources, and an abnormally large wildfire can be disastrous.

GOAL 3: Good health and well-being
Smoke from wildfires causes air pollution and is bad for your health no matter where you live. Wildfires release harmful pollutants including particulate matter and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and non-methane organic compounds into the atmosphere. Wildfires can cause displacement, stress and anguish to people who have to flee them, beyond those who suffer direct impacts.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported on 23 September 2019 that wild forest and peatland fires across Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia, were putting nearly 10 million children at risk from air pollution. In many countries, escape and protection from air pollution is a privilege not everyone can afford or has equal access to. Air purifiers and good quality pollution masks can be expensive. Those who can’t afford to take time off work may not be able to avoid areas cloaked in smoke, for example.

GOAL 5: Gender equality
Women and girls, especially in developing countries, tend to be more at risk during disasters such as megafires. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the poor are likely to live under circumstances that make them less likely to survive and recover from a disaster event. Studies have shown that disaster fatality rates are much higher for women than for men due, in large part, to gendered differences in capacity to cope with such events and insufficient access to information and early warnings.

GOAL 6: Clean water and sanitation
Particulates and black carbon from forest fires are carried in the air and enter water courses. Researchers have quantified and characterized the black carbon flowing in the Amazon. “In aquatic ecosystems, effects of acidity, nitrogen, and mercury on organisms and biogeochemical processes are well documented. Air pollution causes or contributes to acidification of lakes, eutrophication of estuaries and coastal waters, and mercury bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs,” says a study titled Effects of Air Pollution on Ecosystems and Biological Diversity in the Eastern United States.

GOAL 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure
When they spread to urban or semi-urban areas, wildfires can damage infrastructure such as power lines, mobile phone masts and homes. Rebuilding may be costly or time consuming.

GOAL 12: Responsible consumption and production
Extravagant lifestyles and unsustainable consumption of natural resources in many countries, and associated pollution, are contributing to global heating which in turn makes wildfires more likely.

GOAL 13: Climate action  
Wildfires release carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and contribute to global heating when the size of the fire exceeds the CO2 reabsorption potential of re-growth. Particles and gases from burning biomass can be carried over long distances, affecting air quality in regions far away. Particles can also land on snow and ice, causing the ice to absorb sunlight that it would otherwise reflect, thereby accelerating global warming. Wildfires on highly combustible peatland are particularly relevant for climate as they emit far more CO2 than ordinary forest or bush fires. These phenomena are known as climate feedback loops and increase the burden of emissions that must be reduced to limit global temperature increase.

GOAL 15: Life on land
While humans have used fire to manage landscapes for thousands of years, current wildfires, exacerbated by global heating and drought, are growing in scale and impact, destroying houses, infrastructure and wildlife—affecting biodiversity. They can cause economic decline, at least in the short term.

“We have 10 years to drastically reduce our emissions to maintain the 1.5°C target,” says United Nations Environment Programme climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg. “Not meeting this target will seriously undermine efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The United Nations has declared a Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

For more information, please contact Niklas Hagelberg: [email protected]