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Do not burn

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Images taken from space show a planet wreathed in forest fires. They aren’t started by climate change, but they will speed it up with a vengeance


Who gets to burn? That is the question. Are some forests to be disposed of as farmers and landowners choose while others are to be nurtured for the sake of the planet? Last week an observant reporter at Bloomberg examined some Nasa forest fire data that showed there were more fires burning in Angola than Brazil.

 

Yet the object of all the anger in the world on the subject of forest fires was directed at Brazil. Were double standards at work? Was Brazil’s President Bolsonaro being unfairly criticised for encouraging Brazilians to exploit their country’s natural wealth?

The answers are no and no. It’s true that there were more fires burning in Africa than in the Amazon, but most were small fires, under control, burning grass that re-grows in a year. In that time most of the carbon released by burning is reabsorbed by growing.

 

In the Amazon the fires are fewer but much bigger. Many are out of control. Almost all are destroying old-growth tropical rainforest that could take a century to regrow if allowed to.

 

For all practical purposes the carbon released stays in the atmosphere for good. The lost biodiversity is lost for good as well. And the slash and burn approach to forest clearance creates thousands of miles of “sharp edges” to the forest, whose trees are no longer protected by each other from the hair-dryer effect of global warming. Rainforest becomes a tinderbox.

 

Climate change dries out forests but on the whole it does not start fires. People do. In Africa, hominins have been doing this to fertilise the savannah for a million years and its native species have evolved accordingly. In these circumstances, as the ecologist Colin Beale has asked, what’s “unnatural” about fires set by humans?

It’s a fair question. But after a million years of human population growth, setting fire to the biosphere is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, on any continent.

The fires in Africa and Brazil point to the same solutions. Humans should eat less beef. We should earmark much more money than we have so far to compensate indigenous peoples for preserving their environment. Trade deals like the recent EU-Mercosur pact should be tailored to give emerging economies access to western markets in return for robust conservation. And national governments should be bypassed in favour of regional ones when leaders like Bolsonaro insist on appealing to the short-termism of industrialised forest-clearing. The most fervent defenders of Brazil’s forests are in Brazil. They deserve to be heard.