Smoke pollution must be part of the savanna fire management equation: A case study from Darwin, Australia

Ambio. 2022 May 24. doi: 10.1007/s13280-022-01745-9. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Savanna fire management is a topic of global debate, with early dry season burning promoted as a large-scale emissions reduction opportunity. To date, discussions have centred on carbon abatement efficacy, biodiversity and cultural benefits and/or risks. Here we use a case study of Darwin, Australia to highlight smoke pollution as another critical consideration. Smoke pollution from savanna fires is a major public health issue, yet absent so far from discussions of program design. Here, we assess the likely impacts of increased early dry season burning on smoke pollution in Darwin between 2004 and 2019, spanning the introduction and expansion of carbon abatement programs. We found increased smoke pollution in the early dry season but little change in the late dry season, contributing to a net annual increase in air quality standard exceedances. Geospatial analysis suggests this relates to increased burning in the path of early dry season trade winds. This study highlights the complex health trade-offs involved with any large-scale prescribed burning, including for carbon abatement.

Keywords: Carbon abatement; Fire; Northern Australia; Particulate pollution; Smoke pollution; Tropical savanna.