Tropical savanna fires make a significant contribution to the nation's accountable greenhouse gas emissions. Our research looks at how to measure and manage these emissions, as well as Indigenous livelihood opportunities from the emerging carbon economy.

The challenge

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 accountable (methane and nitrous oxide) greenhouse gas emissions, and strongly influence rates of carbon sequestration.

Savanna fires make a significant contribution to the nation’s accountable greenhouse gas emissions

There is growing national and international interest in reducing the extent and severity of these fires in a greenhouse gas abatement context. Reducing the frequency and intensity of the fire regime reduces the emissions of nitrous oxide and methane in smoke and can increase the carbon stored in the landscape. This has the potential to transform regional economies in northern Australia, especially by providing livelihood opportunities for remote Aboriginal communities where mainstream economies are very limited.

Our response

Measuring and managing emissions from fires

CSIRO's research addresses the biophysical, economic, policy and anthropological issues relating to savanna fire management for greenhouse gas abatement, especially on Aboriginal lands. In collaboration with Aboriginal rangers, the Northern Land Council, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), Bushfires NT and Charles Darwin University, we developed the Australian Government's Carbon Farming Initiative Savanna burning methodology for savannas with average annual rainfall greater than 1000 mm.

Most savannas burn on average once in every 2–4 years, in the late dry season, and it's these fires that produce 3-4 per cent of Australia's accountable (methane and nitrous oxide) greenhouse emissions. The savanna burning methodology helps to reduce these emissions by shifting burning from the late dry season (October - November) towards the early dry season (March - April), and reducing the area that is burnt each year.

Fire-management methodology based on our research has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires being reduced by more than half a million tonnes in 2013 across northern Australia. Land managers have also benefitted through the sale of carbon credits. In 2013, about 90 000 sq km of land was being managed under various savanna fire abatement projects. CSIRO has also been working with partners to better understand greenhouse gas emissions in drier savannas, down to 600 mm average annual rainfall.

CSIRO modelling indicates that improved fire management across northern Australia has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.

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