Wildfires continue to frequent news headlines around the world. This spike in wildfires is a product of the climate crisis and land use changes. According to the EU Commission, the wildfire season in 2022 was the second worst on record. In 2022 alone, global wildfires and vegetation fires generated around 1,455 megatonnes of carbon emissions (Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service). Over 400 wildfires have been raging in Canada over the last week, with the smoke spreading to New York and other major US cities.
The relationship between air pollution, climate change and wildfires is a vicious cycle that threatens people, animals and planet. Burning trees releases carbon and particulate matter, causing air quality to plummet. Understanding the interconnectedness of these issues is key to unlocking an effective, joined up approach.
Understanding the connection
Air pollution, wildfires and climate change are closely linked. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, transportation and industrial processes, release greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, which fuel climate change. In turn, these pollutants trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the earth’s temperature to rise and increasing the likelihood of wildfires.
But wildfires aren’t just a by-product of climate change. They cause and exacerbate more fires – perpetuating a vicious cycle. As temperatures rise and weather patterns become more erratic, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense. In addition, drought conditions, which are also linked to climate change, make forests more vulnerable to wildfires.
Wildfires release a range of pollutants into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. These pollutants can combine with existing air pollution, further increasing smoke’s harmful effects on human health and the environment.
Many of the solutions to climate change and air pollution are the same. Siloed efforts to respond to this escalating global crisis fall short by ignoring how interconnected these issues are.
Source: Global Forest Watch
Breaking the cycle and building resilience
While the global media is currently highlighting the devastation of the Canadian fires, last year saw wildfires ravage five continents. Just some examples include record breaking fires in Australia and California, a state of emergency in Chile, mountain blazes in Algeria and an outbreak in London.
Given the severity of the impacts of the vicious cycle between air pollution, climate change and wildfires, governments need to take action to break the cycle. Understanding the cyclical nature of climate change, air pollution and wildfires is fundamental to a joined up approach.
Rather than solely concentrating efforts on putting out multiple fires, governments should take note of the interconnectedness between climate change, air pollution and wildfires. Attention should be directed to interventions with long-standing, sustainable impact, with a shift from a reactionary approach to prevention. For instance, experts have put forward ‘Fire Ready Formula’, with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, with one third left for response. Governments tend to overlook some of the best opportunities to tackle climate change because they overlook substantial economic, healthcare and other benefits these policies also offer by reducing air pollution. Learn more about the benefits of a joined up approach for tackling air pollution and climate change together.