Forest fires are not only a threat to those in the direct path of the flames; but also a significant source of GHG emissions that exacerbate climate change. With the global impetus steered toward carbon sequestration and the Kyoto Protocol monetizing carbon emissions, CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere are often ignored. It is essential to understand that every ton of CO2e (Carbon Dioxide Equivalent) released also has a cost associated with it.
In recent years, there has been a growing conversation around carbon sequestration through afforestation efforts. However, along with creating carbon trading platforms, protecting existing forests from wildfires is equally important, if not more.
A Growing Concern
As climate change accelerates, the frequency and intensity of fires have increased. For instance, Greece saw an average of 1,700 fires per year during 1990-1995. According to Blue Sky Analytics data, just between January and September of 2021, this number stood at 9,200, an increase of five and a half times.
August was particularly unusual —there was an average of 320 fires per month until July while in August alone, there were 6,759 fires. That’s a terrifying statistic even when you take into account that August is traditionally the hottest month and sees more fires as compared to other months.
An increase in forest fires leads to increased emissions. In August alone, 8.5 million tons of CO2 were emitted due to these fires. In terms of scale, this was equivalent to emissions from 1.8 million cars driven for a year. Every day in August saw an average of 0.3 million tons of CO2 emitted while the first half of 2021 saw average daily emission of 500 tons.
It is thus paramount to understand the cost of these fires and measure their consequences on the economy. But how does one estimate the direct and indirect costs of burning forests which results in emissions and loss of forest land?
At Blue Sky Analytics, we did the math based on a simple logic — calculated it on the basis of the carbon released by a particular wildfire. The logic is based on the assumption that if there’s a cost associated with capturing carbon from the atmosphere, the same would be applicable for carbon released in the air.
Let’s talk numbers
Forest and agricultural fires are the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, tracking fires and associated emissions in real-time is critical to minimizing the financial repercussions. Historically, due to a lack of appropriate monitoring infrastructure and heavy reliance on self-reporting, this was largely available in inventories updated only once in a couple of years.
However, from space, emissions can’t be missed. As founding members of Al Gore’s Climate TRACE coalition, Blue Sky Analytics, is part of a global effort to track emissions in detail with satellite and AI, technologies that didn’t exist commercially when the documentary An Inconvenient Truth was first released.
Now with Zuri, our dataset for fires and GHG emissions tracking, we can accurately track emissions from fire disasters in near real-time and finally begin to quantify their cost.
For instance, the Marshall and Middle Fork fire that seared Boulder, Colorado, in December 2021 emitted 83,901.91 tons CO2. While there is no current federal price for carbon in the United States, the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act valued American carbon at USD 57.21 per ton in 2021.
Based on these estimates, the cost of the total emissions from the Boulder County fires comes to a whopping USD 4.8 million.
Cost to countries and economies
It is obvious that wildfires account for a significant expense for economies across the globe. They have disastrous consequences, destroying homes and wildlife habitats and causing air pollution. For instance, the 2021 fires in Greece burnt down 125,000 acres of forest and arable land. As the country recovers from a decade-long economic crisis, it now has to bear the cost of those emissions. According to EU-ETS prices, each metric ton of carbon dioxide was worth approximately EUR 56.66 that summer at EU-ETS prices.
Thus, the ~ 8.5 million tons of emissions in August 2021 cost Greece EUR 481 million (USD 514 million).
Similarly, according to our data, between 2015 and 2021 forest fires in the US emitted 1.45 billion tons of CO2. This means the fires led to damages worth USD 83 billion in the past five years. The final financial toll of forest fires is even more staggering. Worldwide, forest fires from 2015 to 2020 emitted 35.14 billion tons of CO2, bringing the global cost close to USD 2 trillion, which is the net worth of Microsoft.
The current approach to measuring emissions is based on perception, not reality. However, sensors and satellites reveal the truth.
For example, in our work with Climate TRACE, the scope of savanna fires surprised us all. These open fires have gone unnoticed and untracked by media, and as a result, are under-researched. That’s 4 billion tons of CO2 costing USD 228 billion over five years completely ignored!
Ultimately, as advocacy for climate-smart investment, insurance, and policy gain traction, there is a need to re-evaluate how we quantify the true cost of forest fires. Accurate and real-time monitoring can help with recognizing these hidden emissions and redefining net-zero pledges and carbon sequestration projects.