Climate change will bring increased risk of wildfires across the world, UN study warns

Updated: Feb 28


A grim report from the United Nations Environment Programme warns that wildfires are expected to rise 50% by the end of the century, and governments are not prepared. Over the past few years, we’ve seen wildfires scourge the planet with the Australian Bushfires and the apocalyptic red skies of 2020’s West Coast wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes.


Climate change and land usage are projected to make extreme global wildfires rise 14% by 2030 with much more frequency and intensity.


Current evidence suggests that wildfires will occur more in certain areas, and even the arctic can’t avoid climate change’s fiery wrath. Accelerated warming in the arctic has contributed to the thawing of glaciers and permafrost, which significantly increases the possibility of flammability. While the arctic has never been known for wildfires, the area has seen many record-setting blazes recently. The 2020 wildfires released more pollutants in June than in previous months on record. Last year, arctic fires released 35% more CO2 into the atmosphere than in previous years.


Similarly, tropical locations such as the forests of Indonesia and the Southern Amazon are expected to see more fires if greenhouse emissions aren’t cut.


While we may never completely eliminate the possibility of wildfires, much can be done to manage and reduce their risk.


The document urges world leaders to adopt a ‘Fire Ready Formula’ to help combat the rise of global wildfires. The plan would devote two-thirds of spending for planning, prevention, preparedness, and recovery, while one-third would remain for the response. Currently, direct responses to wildfires receive over half of related expenditures, while planning remains neglected, with less than one percent of resources utilized.


“Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact, with many countries suffering from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention,” said the report.


Wildfires have a detrimental effect on our environment and further highlight global wealth inequality. Wildfires disproportionately affect the world’s poorest nations, and their impact could extend well over a year after the flames subside. These catastrophes can directly impact people’s health by inhaling toxic smoke and leave communities devastated as watersheds are degraded by pollutants.


Fires don’t spare animals either, as many species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The Australian bushfire was responsible for endangering roughly 3 billion animals. Fires burnt the habitat of 832 of Australia’s native animal species, including 21 that were “threatened with extinction” under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.


“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” the report proclaimed.


To prevent future fires from wreaking havoc, the authors call for a combination of science-based monitoring systems with indigenous knowledge alongside stronger regional and international cooperation.


“Current government responses to wildfires are often putting money in the wrong place,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “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.”


There are a number of early stage technology companies that are looking to help battle these risks by predicting forest fires, better managing forest offsets, and using drones to battle the blaze.


These are businesses like Chooch AI, which is able to remotely recognize fires and help first responders get to blazes before they become towering infernos.


Artificial intelligence is also being used by companies like Ororatech, a Munich-based startup that uses satellite imagery from a network of 100 small cube sats that it hopes to build to identify fires early.


And finally, the robots are doing their parts as well. Especially Squishy Robotics, a company founded by UC Berkeley engineering professor Alice Agogino.


“We interviewed a number of first responders,” Agogino told TechCrunch in a 2019 interview. “They told us they want us to deploy ground sensors before they get there, to know what they’re getting into; then when they get there they want something to walk in front of them.”


These are the kinds of solutions that FootPrint Coalition wants to support — and the kind of predictive tools we’re already backing with investments in companies like ClimateAI, a company that provides weather forecasting to give businesses the information they need to respond to weather threats.


“Adapting to the impacts of climate change is critical to the future of our economy and essential to our future as a species,” said partner, Jon Schulhof, co-founder of FootPrint Coalition Ventures, when FootPrint announced our investment last year. “ClimateAi is a platform that provides long-term insights into weather and climate impacts, providing businesses the information they need today to take the actions needed now to adapt to the climate disruptions of tomorrow.”

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