In a world grappling with the relentless challenges of climate change, a new study shines a spotlight on a perilous and often overlooked consequence: landscape fires and their insidious link to air pollution.
The research, recently published in the prestigious journal Nature, reveals a disheartening reality—air pollution stemming from these fires disproportionately affects the world’s less affluent nations, underscoring the glaring disparities in our shared struggle for clean air and a healthier planet.
The annual air pollution from landscape fires in low-income countries was around four times higher than in rich nations, the study found, with central Africa, Southeast Asia, SouthAs America and Siberia experiencing the highest levels.
Increasing temperatures linked to human-caused climate change are increasing the risk of fire.
The study revealed a sobering truth—the annual air pollution stemming from landscape fires in low-income countries was approximately four times higher than in their wealthier counterparts. The regions most severely impacted included central Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and Siberia. These areas experienced the highest levels of airborne pollutants, threatening the health of their populations.
The rise in temperatures, attributed to human-induced climate change, further compounds the issue. Shandy Li, an associate professor at Monash University, warns that warming trends could worsen this pollution crisis. She emphasises the imperative need for action to reduce exposure to fire-related air pollution.
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Landscape fires encompass a spectrum of infernos, from controlled agricultural burns to raging, uncontrollable wildfires that devour forests, shrublands, grasslands, pastures, and croplands. In most cases landscape fires are started in agricultural and pasture lands and then spread to forests and other natural plant communities. While they may differ in their origins and intentions, these fires have a common outcome: the release of harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.
Fires of this nature are not confined by borders or boundaries; they generate vast plumes of smoke that can travel thousands of kilometers. This nomadic smoke, laden with fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 and surface ozone concentrations, becomes a global public health concern. The consequences are severe, contributing to an increase in mortality rates and exacerbating heart and lung-related illnesses.
According to a study published in Lancet Planetary Health last year, ambient air pollution was responsible for a staggering 4.5 million deaths in 2019. The adverse effects of air pollution, especially PM2.5 particles, on human health are well-documented. These fine particles infiltrate deep into the respiratory system, triggering a cascade of health problems.
Air pollution is one of the biggest global threats, worse than unsafe drinking water or smoking, as per the latest report of Air Quality Life Index. It reduces the life expectancy of Indians by 5 years.
The latest research in Nature aimed to unveil the global scope of this problem. It employed data analysis, machine learning, and modeling to estimate the daily emissions of PM2.5 and surface ozone concentrations resulting from landscape fires from 2000 to 2019. The findings were startling and underscored a significant global disparity.
Between 2010 and 2019, an average of 2.18 billion people annually faced at least one day of “substantial” air pollution originating from landscape fires. This represented an alarming nearly seven percent increase compared to the previous decade. Vulnerable populations in central Africa and Southeast Asia experienced over 30 days of substantial pollution per person each year.
In contrast, Europeans, although not immune to air pollution challenges, averaged just one day of substantial pollution exposure per year during the same period.
The study’s results resonate with the concept of “climate injustice”.
Africa had the highest average number of days of exposure to “substantial” fire-derived air pollution per person every year at 32.5, followed by South America at 23.1.
In contrast, Europeans were exposed to around one day of substantial pollution per year on average during the decade.
The five countries with the highest average annual number of days of exposure to substantial fire-sourced pollution per person were all African: Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon.
It starkly illustrates how those least responsible for human-induced climate change bear the brunt of its consequences. Vulnerable populations find themselves on the frontlines of increasingly intense and frequent wildfires, grappling with the health risks posed by fire-related air pollution.
While this research unveils a disconcerting reality, it also offers a ray of hope. Changes to land management techniques, including addressing agricultural waste and implementing controlled burns for land conversion, could help mitigate the extent and impact of landscape fires.
Moreover, reducing extreme weather events through concerted efforts to combat climate change is key to limiting the risk posed by landscape fires.