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Scientists: Australian Aboriginal Knowledge Could Curb Carbon Emissions

  • Phil Mercer

As Australia's federal parliament prepares to vote this week on a sweeping carbon trading program, scientists say that aboriginal fire management practices could help reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Indigenous techniques have limited the severity and scale of brushfires that break out every year across northern Australia's vast savannahs.

About 90 percent of the brushfires in Australia occur in the country's far north.

Each year large areas of savannah are inundated during the wet season, which accelerates the growth of vegetation. Traditionally, Aboriginal people burned off small sections of grassland to limit the damage from wildfires during the drier months.

The use of strategically positioned spot fires is part of a range of indigenous techniques that reduce the carbon emitted during planned burn-offs.

Since the European settlement of Australia the aboriginal fire management practices have faded.

But Scott Heckbert, an environmental economist at Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO, thinks that aboriginal knowledge can help reduce carbon pollution.

"Being able to go out in the early dry season when fires that are lit don't turn into massive infernos, they can create a mosaic of patchiness in the fuel that exists on the ground. In the late dry season, large wild fires that will inevitably start do not carry for thousands of kilometers across the landscape, as would happen in a completely unmanaged situation," he said.

Heckbert notes that wildfires account for about three percent of Australia's carbon emissions. Scientists have estimated that the widespread use of traditional fire management methods could cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by up to five million tons.

Offsetting these reductions under a proposed carbon trading system could generate millions of dollars for indigenous communities, which are some of Australia's most disadvantaged.

Some aboriginal groups are considering renting out their woodlands and plains to store carbon as part of giant sequestration programs. Those plans aim to harness the ability of trees and soil to soak up carbon dioxide.

Australia is one of the world's worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, which scientists think contribute to global warming. Federal lawmakers meet this week to vote on the government's ambitious carbon trading system.

It would compel companies to buy permits for every ton of carbon they emit, a mechanism designed to provide financial incentives to reduce pollution. It would cover about 75 percent of emissions from Australia's one thousand largest polluters.