Tiwi Carbon Study: managing fire for greenhouse gas abatement

Tiwi Islanders and CSIRO are working together to examine the biophysical and economic potential of fire management for Greenhouse gas abatement on the Tiwi Islands, as a basis for possible livelihood opportunities for Tiwi people.

The Challenge

Savanna fires contribute to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions

Tropical savannas contain about 30 per cent of Australia's terrestrial carbon stocks, and are the continent's most fire prone biome, with up to half or more of many landscapes being burnt each year.

These fires make a significant contribution to the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, and traditional fire management continues to be an important custodial responsibility for Aboriginal people. Under the Federal Government's Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), projects that reduce savanna burning can earn carbon credits, and this has created exciting opportunities for remote and disadvantaged Aboriginal communities across the north.

Tiwi Land Ranger, Leon Puruntatameri, lighting experimental fires as part of the Tiwi Carbon Study.

Fires on the Aboriginal-owned Tiwi Islands emit more than 100,000 tonnes of accountable CO2-equivalents each year. Reducing the extent of these fires therefore represents a significant economic opportunity for Tiwi people. However, the substantial Tiwi cultural values relating to fire need to be maintained, as do the Tiwi Islands' exceptional biodiversity values, which are of national significance and remain an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Tiwi people.

Our Response

Working with Tiwi Islanders on fire and carbon

The Tiwi Islands are located 80 kilometres north of Darwin in the Northern Territory, and are home to 2000 Aboriginal Australians. The Tiwi Carbon Study is a partnership between CSIRO and the Tiwi Land Council, Tiwi Land Rangers and the Tiwi College.  Funding support has been provided by the Australian Government's Biodiversity Fund, Indigenous Carbon Fund and Inspiring Australia, Unlocking Australia's Potential Program.

The Tiwi Carbon Study aims to improve knowledge and understanding of:

  • greenhouse gas emissions from burning various savanna types
  • fire effects on above- and below-ground carbon storage
  • effects of different fire management options on biodiversity
  • economic potential from emission abatement
  • how fire abatement might support Tiwi livelihoods.

The study features 18 long-term experimental plots (each 50 to 100 hectares) subject to different fire management options. Community engagement and capacity-building activities are a core feature of the Tiwi Carbon Study, and we work closely with the Tiwi Land Council, Tiwi Land Rangers and the Tiwi College to increase awareness and understanding of fire management on the islands.

"Tiwi people have always understood and cared for country – but now we need to use new knowledge because the world around us is changing."

- Willie Rioli, Tiwi Land Ranger Mentor and Supervisor

The Results

Reducing fire frequency has important benefits

The results of the Tiwi Carbon Study are the basis of an integrated Tiwi fire management plan that best meets the cultural, environmental and economic aspirations of the Tiwi people.

Quantifying emissions under the existing savanna burning methodology

CSIRO has developed an ERF-compliant ten year (2005–2014) fire history for the Tiwi Islands. An average of nearly 2,000 km2 of Tiwi savanna woodlands and open forests are burned every year, with more than 70 per cent of burning occurring late in the dry season when emissions are highest. Changed fire management scenarios could potentially abate emissions by up to 46 000 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions each year by reducing both the overall extent of fire and the proportion burnt late in the year.

Development of a new savanna burning methodology

A new approach to quantifying the impact of changed fire management on greenhouse gas emissions from savanna burning has been developed as part of the Tiwi Carbon Study. The current savanna burning methodology accounts only for emissions of nitrous oxide and methane in smoke, and does not consider changes in savanna carbon stocks.

The new approach incorporates an assessment of changes in dead organic matter, focussing on woody debris that is a relatively stable and long-lived carbon pool. Improved fire management on the islands will lead to increased stocks of woody debris on the ground, and this provides not only increased carbon that has been withdrawn from the atmosphere, but also an important habitat for wildlife. Once approved, this work will lead to a several-fold increase in the carbon credits that can be earned by savanna fire management projects under the ERF, not just on the Tiwi Islands, and therefore have a major impact on the economics of fire management across northern Australia.


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