Climate Change

Increasing wildfires, heatwaves to increase ‘climate penalty’, finds WMO study

Asia will suffer the consequences of increased air pollution the most 

Published: Monday 12 September 2022

An increase in the number of heatwaves leading to wildfires and the subsequent increase in pollution will lead to an increase in ‘climate penalty’, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The penalties will affect millions of people, harming their health and surrounding ecosystems.

A report by WMO has estimated a range of outcomes under low and high greenhouse gas emissions. It explores how the hot and dry conditions in North America and Siberia led to wildfires and an increase in particulate matter (PM) 2.5 levels in 2020 and 2021.

An increase in the fine particulate pollution which is suspended in the air is a severe health hazard if inhaled over long periods.

The anomalous levels observed during July and August 2021 in Siberia have never been seen before. During the heatwaves in Europe and China this year, stable high atmospheric conditions, sunlight and low wind speeds were conducive to high pollution levels.

The “climate penalty” refers to the climate change amplification effect on ground-level ozone production, which negatively impacts the air people breathe.

Asia, where a fourth of the world resides, will face most of this penalty, where surface ozone pollution episodes might be exacerbated.

Ozone is good if it is found in the stratosphere since it protects living beings from UV radiation. But surface-level ozone pollution, which happens when pollutants react with each other in the presence of sunlight, is bad for health.

Climate change and air quality are interrelated because the sources of air degradation are released along with greenhouse gases. For example, burning of fossil fuels releases Nitrogen Oxide apart from Co2, which reacts with sunlight to form Ozone and Nitrate aerosols. When these pollutants are deposited in our ecosystems, they affect crop yield, clean water and biodiversity.

The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has assessed that the probability of catastrophic wildfire events like Chile in 2017, Australia in 2019 and the western USA in 2020-2021 is likely to increase.

The wildfires will increase by 40-60 per cent by the end of the century under a high emission scenario and 30-50% under a low emission scenario.

Under the 3-degree Celsius scenario, surface ozone levels will rise by 20 per cent in Pakistan, North India and Bangladesh and 10 per cent across eastern China.

If the world becomes more carbon neutral on the other hand, ozone pollution episodes will be limited because eliminating fossil fuels will also prevent the release of ozone precursor gasses like Nitrogen Oxide and Volatile Organic Compounds.

In this scenario, small short-term warming will be felt, followed by temperature decreases, but this might get cancelled out by natural aerosol emissions like dust or wildfire smoke.

A low-carbon scenario will enhance human life in every way possible by preventing depositions in our ecosystem and improving the quality of food, water and air.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.