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PROFOR and IUFRO Global Expert Workshop on Fire, Forests and Climate Change


Forests and trees in landscapes are vital resources and recognized for their ecosystem services especially to the rural poor by providing effective pathways out of poverty together with other development measures. Since time immemorial, forest fires both natural and human-caused, have played a critical role in shaping our environment. Fire is an inherent feature of the earth system, and some cultures have historically achieved sustainable co-existence with flammable landscapes. It is well established that at a global scale, modern-day unwanted forest fires are largely anthropogenic in origin (estimates vary by region but can be as high as 93% of fires are started by humans), with lightning-caused fires almost being outliers in comparison. Importantly, fire constitutes in many instances a major contribution to deforestation and forest degradation. It is used by individuals and communities to prepare lands for shifting cultivation, to burn coarse grasses in forest undergrowth and in pastures for succulent shoots to feed cattle, to clean forest floors for ease in collecting non-timber forest products (NTFP), and to force wild animals to come out of hiding for hunting, among other things.

Although landscape use policies and management practices have focused on decreasing the global land area burnt every year, there is an overall global trend of increasing frequency and intensity of uncontrolled forest fires adversely affecting biodiversity, ecological services, human well-being and livelihoods and national economies. Recent fire seasons have been catastrophic. Damage from forest fires in the year 2017 in the United States was the costliest in the country’s history while in Portugal and India numerous lives were lost to raging forest fires. Brazil, India, and Indonesia saw increasing fire frequency with fatalities and dramatic consequences on people’s health from smoke and haze.

Against this background, the World Bank Group/PROFOR and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) have jointly convened a Global Expert Workshop on Forest Fire and Climate Change in Vienna, Austria on 2-4 July 2018, with the aim to improve the understanding of the complex interrelations between forest fire, climate and land management and to identify urgently required response strategies and actions. Besides providing the knowledge needed for national governments to design their response strategies, the initiative also seeks to help the World Bank devise appropriate investment policies in supporting disaster risk management and pathways towards more sustainable land uses. In this way, the initiative also contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDGs 13 (Climate Action), 15 (Life on Land) and 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation).

The three-day Global Expert Workshop was commissioned by the Program on Forests (PROFOR), a multi-donor partnership led by the World Bank, and organized by IUFRO under the thematic lead of IUFRO’s Working Party on “Forest Fires”. It brought together 32 scientists and governmental experts from around the globe and World Bank representatives to discuss the complex forest fire-climate change-restoration nexus. Besides the classical fields of expertise in fire management, the invited scientists also represent a diverse array of specializations including meteorology and climate change science, land use planning, global fire monitoring, remote sensing, vegetation modeling, hydrology, sociology, and policy sciences.

The Global Expert Workshop affirms that the warming climate contributes significantly to the increase in the frequency and intensity of uncontrolled forest fires, thereby further degrading forest ecosystems and impairing their capacity to produce the forest goods and services that play an important part in global development and poverty reduction objectives. Climate change, particularly hotter and drier seasons, combined with environmental and demographic changes are exceeding traditional fire management approaches’ capacity to cope and are economically unsustainable.

Human use of controlled fire far exceeds the amount of uncontrolled fire that takes place on the planet, but the small percentage of escaped fires is an important source of unwanted fires globally. Fire is an important management tool serving many purposes and providing benefits in a diversity of environmental and socio-economic contexts across the globe. It should not be eliminated, but rather integrated with understanding of local specificities and global realities. As the global population continues to grow, the reduction of unwanted fire frequently caused by negligence, perverse incentives and even criminality can only be achieved with public participation; therefore, enabling environments and policies underpinned by strong social science are imperative.

The input provided by the group of experts participating in the workshop and additional information received by a few distance contributors will form the basis for the elaboration of an Issue Paper synthesizing globally available scientific information on the relationship between climate change and forest fires and the role of restoration. The Issue Paper will firstly describe the current situation in terms of the extent and nature of forest fires occurring in the various regions including their drivers and socio-economic consequences.  This is followed by presenting the latest knowledge about climate change and altered fire regimes and the scientific consensus on the biophysical impact of a changing climate on forest fires. Based on these environmental considerations, the social and economic impacts of climate change-altered fire regimes on forests and people are discussed. The Issue Paper concludes with highlighting possible, potential, effective, landscape management strategies, addressing the necessary enabling environment, options for mitigation, and adaptation within the framework of landscape-smart solutions.

The Preliminary results transpired from the deliberations in the workshop can be summarized by the following key messages:

  • Future sustainable fire management demands region-specific landscape management approaches emphasizing prevention, surveillance, early warning, early suppression and landscape-scale fuel management;
  • Engagement with communities, land-owners and other stakeholders is crucial via multiple tiers of governance to design and maintain landscapes that are economically productive, bio-diverse and sustaining to provide ecosystem services;
  • Global perspectives of fire cultures acquired via remote sensing technologies and ground-based monitoring combined with translational research are essential to build adaptive capacity to confront challenges of forest fires.
  • Where tropical forests or peatlands already suffered substantial alterations, we need to think beyond those solutions. Restoration of ecological functions of degraded forests and peatlands, investment in fire free perennial economic solutions in risk areas and strategic economic land uses will need to be part of the interventions if we don’t want to risk the dieback or loss of the ecosystem
Event Date: 
Monday, July 2, 2018 - 08:00 to Wednesday, July 4, 2018 - 20:00

In early July, PROFOR and the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) jointly convened an expert meeting on fire, forests and climate change, in Vienna. It brought together 32 scientists and governmental experts from around the globe and World Bank representatives to discuss the complex forest fire-climate change-restoration nexus.