The deadly bush fires in Australia have released millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to more than a third of the country's CO2 emissions for a whole year, according to scientists.
The blazes in Victoria have so far claimed more than 180 lives and destroyed more than 750 homes. To make matters worse, the climate costs will also be dire because of the type of forest that burned, according to Mark Adams of the University of Sydney. "Once you burn millions of hectares of eucalypt forest, then you are putting into the atmosphere very large amounts of carbon," he told The Australian newspaper.
Australia's total emissions per year are around 330m tons of CO2. Adams's previous research has shown that the bush fires in 2003 and 2006-07 had put up to 105m tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because they burned up land carrying 50 to 80 tons of carbon per hectare.
This time, however, the forests being destroyed are even more carbon-rich, with more than 100 tons of above-ground carbon per hectare. The affected area is more than twice the size of London and takes in more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, so the CO2 emissions from this year's disaster could be far larger than previous fires.
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"The world's forests are crucial to the long-term future of the planet as they lock away millions of tons of carbon dioxide," said Robin Webster, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "More must be done to protect them - deforestation is having a devastating effect and as climate change takes hold, forest fires like those in Australia are likely to become more frequent."
The carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires are not counted under the agreements made by countries in the Kyoto Protocol, though it is being considered for inclusion in the successor treaty that will be debated later this year in Copenhagen. The usual reasoning behind it was that, with any fires, new growth of vegetation would take up any extra CO2 that had been released. "That is true to a point, but if the long-term fire regime changes - we are now starting to have more fires - we may completely change the carbon balance of the forest," said Adam.
He added: "All informed scientific opinion suggests that whatever new protocol is signed [at the UN summit] in Copenhagen or elsewhere will include forest carbon, simply because to not do so would be to ignore one of the biggest threats to the global atmospheric pool of carbon dioxide, the release of carbon in fires."