Tropical savannas are Australia's most fire-prone biome, with up to half of many savanna landscapes being burnt each year.

The challenge

A fire-prone landscape

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.

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.

Fire is common place in the tropical savannas

The sale of Australian Carbon Credit Units through the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund is transforming regional economies in northern Australia, especially by providing livelihood opportunities for remote Aboriginal communities where mainstream economies are very limited.

Our response

Groundbreaking fire experiments

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 the 1990s, CSIRO worked with University of Wollongong to first quantify greenhouse gas emissions from savanna burning. CSIRO then supported the Australian government to incorporate savanna and agricultural burning into the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. CSIRO explored options for improving management of savanna fires to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

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. CSIRO contributed to reducing uncertainty in emissions estimates under different fire regimes in savannas from the wettest in Australia with about 2000 mm rainfall down to much drier savannas with about 600 mm rainfall.

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.

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