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Australian fires smoke out Kyoto failings

While the tragedy of the shocking loss of life and destruction of property in the Australian wildfires are the immediate focus for authorities, this shouldn’t stop their impact eventually reaching all the way to Copenhagen and the halls where climate negotiators will meet later this year.

The fires highlight the need for a new global climate treaty to better come to terms with the contribution of land-based factors, mainly farming and forests, to greenhouse gas emissions and the potential solutions they offer.

The Australian fires are estimated to have emitted more than 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, increasing the country’s total annual carbon footprint adding by up to 20 per cent in just a few days. While the Victorian fires didn’t burn out as much area as previous major wildfires in 1983 and 2003, the richness of the forests destroyed mean higher carbon emissions may well have resulted, according to Professor Mark Adams, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at University of Sydney.

While much of those emissions are expected to be offset by rapid re-growth in just a few years, scientists can’t yet give an accurate measurement of the net carbon impact from such events. That’s not least because of the impact of potent methane and nitrous oxide emissions, which add to the large volume of carbon dioxide output.

Australian forests and their ecosystems show a remarkable ability to recover from fire, turning from a blackened wasteland to green-shoots wonderland in a matter of months. Explosive re-growth sees large amounts of carbon re-absorbed back into the forests in short space of time, helping offset the huge emissions from their burning.

This phenomena alone underscores that fire has long been a feature of the Australian landscape, and has figured in the evolution of its forests. But humans’ management of farmland and forest is now also a factor. Some argue that human activity is making for larger or more frequent fires. We don’t know for sure. Others say that prescribed and controlled burning to reduce the threat of uncontrolled wildfire is better for forests and results in less emissions in the long run. Scientists don’t know that for sure, either.

What is clear is that a global climate treaty that doesn’t require countries like Australia to account for the massive carbon impacts of fire and land-use activities across its vast landmass is wanting. And it retards the effort to find the answers to the questions above.

Whether its wildfire, prescribed burning, endemic drought, land clearing, agricultural practices, timber plantations or environmental reforestation, all these factors have a huge bearing on overall atmospheric carbon emissions and removals in Australia. Yet the country has to account for very few of these under the Kyoto Protocol, simply by opting not to sign up to Article 3(4), effectively putting land use emissions in the too-hard basket.