2020 Forest Fires Globally Could be Worse Than 2019, WWF Warns

New analysis from WWF and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) shows that the number of fire alerts across the globe, as of April, were up by 13% compared to last year – already a record year for fires. Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change and deforestation caused primarily by land conversion for agriculture are the main drivers.

Deforestation has been steadily rising in the Brazilian Amazon, with deforestation alerts from August 2019 to July 2020 33% higher than in the same period the previous year. The latest data shows fires in the Brazilian Amazon for this year are more than 52% higher than the ten-year average and almost a quarter (24%) higher than that for the past three years. With the July figures from the Brazilian Amazon alone showing a 28% increase in the number of fires over the same period last year due to soaring levels of illegal deforestation, WWF is calling for immediate emergency measures to be implemented, such as banning deforestation in the Amazon for five years.

Humans are responsible for at least 75% of all wildfires, the report highlights. If current trends continue, there will be devastating long-term consequences due to the release of millions of extra tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is in addition to the immediate impacts decimating biodiversity, destroying vital ecosystems, threatening lives, property and livelihoods, and economies, along with the risk of severe long-term health problems for millions around the world.

Meg Symington, Senior Director for the Amazon on the Forest Team at WWF-US, said:
“When fires rage out of control, they have stark environmental and human health consequences. The uptick in fires across the globe, including the Amazon and the Pantanal is a worrying. As our global community faces immense health and economic challenges, environmental protections cannot go by the wayside. We must call for strict enforcement and invest in proactive approaches to end deforestation and curb climate change so we can prevent future disastrous fire seasons.”

Fran Price, Global Leader for Forests at WWF, said:
“The world witnessed the devastating consequences of the fires last year, from billions of wildlife lost and people losing their homes and livelihoods, not to mention the impact on climate. And yet, here we are again. Proactivity and commitment must be at the heart of a global response to fires and must play out at local, sub-national, national and regional levels. Preventing fires before they occur is paramount, and far preferable in all respects to suppressing them when they’re burning. Good intentions on paper mean nothing if they’re not followed up with real and effective actions on the ground – and these actions need to focus urgently on forests and addressing climate change.”

Jesper Nielsen, Managing Director and Senior Partner at BCG, said:
“The time has never been more critical for climate action. At least 75% of fires are due to human activities. Climate change is largely contributing to this worsening situation. As fires also reinforce global warming, a vicious circle is taking place that needs to be broken. A better focus on prevention and protection measures, especially for forests, is certainly part of the answer. Governments and businesses need to put together a coordinated global response in line with the importance and urgency of the fires issue, before there is irreversible damage for our planet.”

The very significant consequences of these fires provide an even greater imperative for all governments to raise their ambition on climate action in their national climate and emissions reductions plans under the Paris Agreement. Countries have the opportunity to do so this year.

The report, ‘Fires, Forests, and the Future: A crisis raging out of control’ takes a deeper dive into fire trends and what they mean for people and the planet, and sets out some recommendations to address the key causes.

1. The exceptions are subsistence agriculture and practices of traditional populations, smallholder agriculture, sustainable forestry, works of public utility and national security issues.
2. BCG analysis based on NASA Fire Information (VIIRS) and Global Forest Watch data