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Published: 8 July 2013

Fire, carbon and Indigenous livelihoods in the Top End

Alan Andersen

For hundreds of thousands of years, dry-season burning has shaped the ecology of the Northern Territory’s Top End. Now, through its role in carbon abatement, controlled burning is playing an important role in the region’s economy, especially in remote Aboriginal communities.

Improved fire management across northern Australia could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 2.25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.
Credit: CSIRO

The Top End’s tropical savanna landscapes are among the most fire-prone ecosystems on Earth. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from savanna burning represent a significant proportion – 3 per cent on average – of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

With the federal government currently pricing carbon at about $25 a tonne, that represents a lot of money going up in smoke.

Most emissions from savanna burning are generated by higher-intensity wildfires that sweep through remote areas during the late dry season, in September and October.

Such fires would have been far more limited in pre-colonial times because of traditional Aboriginal burning earlier in the dry season. Following European colonisation, most Aboriginal people moved off their clan estates to larger settlements. As a result, fire is now largely unmanaged in vast areas of northern Australia.

As well as producing greenhouse gases, wildfires also threaten iconic biodiversity values. These include the sandstone country of World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, home to many plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

Thus the new carbon economy provides a strong incentive for improving fire management both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity.

Many remote Aboriginal communities have retained their traditional fire knowledge, and have strong aspirations for fulfilling cultural obligations through re-establishing traditional management on their homelands. Consequently, a highly skilled and motivated workforce for improved fire management is already ‘on site’.

Tiwi Islanders and CSIRO are working together on the Tiwi Carbon Study to document the effects of fire on emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, above- and below-ground carbon storage, and biodiversity. Here, Tiwi Land Ranger, Desmond Bruppacher, lights an experimental fire on Melville Island as part of the research.
Credit: CSIRO

The pricing of carbon has created the perfect storm for job opportunities in Australia’s most disadvantaged sector, which has few other opportunities for engaging in the mainstream economy.

These job opportunities were first realised by the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project.

WALFA commenced in 2004, with $17 million funding from energy company Conoco-Phillips. Aboriginal traditional owners and ranger groups have been employed to undertake prescribed burning early in the dry season, which limits the extent of unmanaged wildfires later in the season. This reduces overall greenhouse gas emissions and protects the biodiversity values of adjacent Kakadu National Park.

Similar projects are being rolled out right across northern Australia under the guidance of the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance (NAILSMA), as well as by independent Aboriginal organisations, such as the Tiwi Land Council.

Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from savanna burning represent around 3 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Credit: CSIRO

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.1

This is likely to be a very conservative estimate. Currently, only the methane and nitrous oxide released during savanna burning is included in Australia’s greenhouse gas accounts. Much more carbon dioxide is released than methane or nitrous oxide, but the national accounts assume that all the carbon dioxide is taken up by plant growth over the following wet season.

However, savanna ecologists know that fire affects carbon stocks both above- and below-ground, and that a reduction in fire severity is likely to lead to enhanced carbon storage in ecosystems. Preliminary studies by CSIRO indicate that increased storage of carbon in the soil alone through reduced burning represents a far greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than is currently accounted for with methane and nitrous oxide.

Scientists are working on an improved understanding of the effects of fire on carbon storage, in support of the development of a robust accounting methodology that can accommodate the enormous spatial and temporal variability that is inherent in ecosystems. With such a methodology in place, this would mean more greenhouse gas reductions, and more economic opportunity, through improved savanna burning.

Dr Alan Andersen is a Chief Research Scientist with CSIRO's Ecosystem Sciences and leads the tropical savanna research team at CSIRO in Darwin, Northern Territory. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Charles Darwin University.

1 Carbon dioxide equivalent is a measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential. For example, the global warming potential for methane over 100 years is 21. This means that emissions of one million metric tons of methane is equivalent to emissions of 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. See OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms

Published: 22 July 2013

Generational change and the power of one

Mara Bun

‘You see,’ said California Institute of Technology Professor Nate Lewis in 2006, ‘the Earth has a 35-year thermal inertia and so what we're doing now is only the beginning because we're waiting 35 years even to see the effects of what we did 35 years ago. So it would be another 30 years until we started to really see, even at the only 380 parts per million level that we're doing now [ie 2006], what those effects are. And we'll be at 550 [ppm] by then...’

A new generation is finding new solutions to mobilising action on the world’s ‘wicked problems’.
A new generation is finding new solutions to mobilising action on the world’s ‘wicked problems’.
Credit: bo192/istockphoto

In the face of Professor Lewis’ gloomy prognosis , how can young people find hope for the future?

Last week, 30,000 primary school students started Green Cross Australia’s environmental education program Green Lane Diary. Over ten weeks, they will dive into an active learning journey that is aligned with the Australian curriculum. Our mantra is: ‘Think + Act + Share = Change.’

Green Lane Diary raises awareness of environmental risks to ecosystems and communities and celebrates students’ positive responses to these risks – through projects at home, school and in local communities. These activities are shared through interactive maps.

This model of active learning is supported by recent UCLA research addressing the communication of ‘actionable risk’. Though the study focuses on motivating people to prepare for natural disasters, the findings are relevant for motivating environmental behaviour change.

The UCLA researchers found that it is more important ‘... to emphasize the communication of preparedness actions (what to do about risk) rather than the risk itself.’ They also found Americans are ‘most likely to take steps to prepare themselves if they observe the preparations taken by others...’

The Green Lane Diary is a schools-based program designed to inspire 8-13 year olds to engage with ideas about living sustainably.
The Green Lane Diary is a schools-based program designed to inspire 8-13 year olds to engage with ideas about living sustainably.
Credit: Green Cross

This insight offers hope in a world where networks prevail.

Today’s social networks are embryonic compared to how people will connect with each other in 30 years’ time. And, given the exponential curve of early-21st-century scientific discovery, new opportunities for environmental action will emerge as today’s young people grow up. Theirs will be a highly connected world where the pace of change constantly increases.

A recent article by the Monitor Institute discusses the ‘network mindset’ as a catalyst for positive change.

‘Working with a network mindset,’ stress the authors, ‘means operating with an awareness of the webs of relationships you are embedded in. It also means cultivating these relationships to achieve the impact you care about.’

This mindset is almost hard-wired into today’s kids. And for those of us who – unlike our parents – are enjoying middle age connected to childhood friends through Facebook, networks also connect us to that sweet hopeful spot in what must now become a global change equation.

My own Facebook network reveals a powerful conduit for sharing ideas and actions for positive change.

One post on a Facebook page can instantly spread around the world.
One post on a Facebook page can instantly spread around the world.
Credit: M. Bun

My LinkedIn network adds another layer of influence. My 1,405 connections link to 11,499,380 professionals around the world. Astoundingly, over the past week, LinkedIn informs me that another 33,001 people connected to my network of networks.

LinkedIn creates opportunities for connecting in to a massive global 'network of networks'.
LinkedIn creates opportunities for connecting in to a massive global 'network of networks'.
Credit: M. Bun

At the recent Bonn Climate Change negotiations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a call to action for the world’s youth to tackle climate threats, stressing that young people are ‘agents of change’ that bring fresh and innovative ideas to address this most pressing issue.

‘You are in the middle of a great transition era. To address climate change, we need fresh and innovative ideas,’ the Secretary General said.

‘Too often’, he said, ‘adults work to preserve business as usual and the status quo. Young people approach problems with new ideas and a new perspective.’

Embracing a network mindset that can turbocharge the rate of change, today’s youth have a real chance of addressing the wicked climate challenge that my generation is only now waking up to.

Mara Bun was a financial analyst with Morgan Stanley in the US before joined a World Bank earthquake reconstruction project in Nepal in 1989. She then moved to Australia embracing leadership roles with Greenpeace Australia and CHOICE. After a brief return to the business sector, Mara joined CSIRO as Director of Business Development, after which she took up the role of founding CEO of Green Cross Australia. Green Cross has been exploring the use of digital communications and social media to reach diverse audiences – for example,,; and

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