Australia’s Bushfires Bring Mounting Pressure to Reduce Greenhouse Gases

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY, Australia, Jan 8 2020 (IPS)

As nature’s fury wreaked havoc across Australia, reducing to
ashes all that came in its way – people, flora, fauna,
picturesque historic towns and villages once popular with local and
overseas tourists – it was unlike anything the country had
witnessed before. The staggering scale and intensity of the
devastation could best be summed up as apocalyptic.

Bushfires, not uncommon in Australia’s vast woodland, scrub or
grassland areas, started early in September with summer still few
months away (December – February), igniting a fresh debate on the
country’s woeful record on climate change. 2019 was the
country’s driest and
hottest
year on record with the temperature reaching
1.52 °C above the long-term average.

With temperatures soaring close to 50 °C, parched land,
low humidity, strong winds fuelled the fires that since September
have claimed 24 lives, including three volunteer firefighters, and
razed more than 6.3 million hectares of land. Thousands have been
rendered homeless and there has been a heavy toll on wildlife.

For Diana Plater, a writer, who grew up witnessing bushfires in
the regional towns of New South Wales (NSW), the magnitude and
persistence of the fires raging this southern summer was
unimaginable. Two years ago, she trained to be a volunteer
firefighter to help her small community in the scenic valley of
Foxground, two-hour drive south of Sydney.

The NSW Rural Fire Service is one of the world’s largest
volunteer-based emergency services with over 70,000 men and women
volunteers, who have played a crucial role in helping affected
communities. Plater told IPS, “I believe it is important to be
physically and mentally strong and practical and you learn this as
a firefighter. It is exhausting but the camaraderie and humour we
share keeps us going.”

Scientists and environmentalists have been warning that global
warming will increase the intensity and duration of fires and
floods, mounting pressure on Australia to do more towards cutting
greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, 61 percent of Australians said
“global warming is a serious and pressing problem”, about which
“we should begin taking steps now even if this involves
significant costs”. This is a 25-point increase since 2012,
according to
the 2019 Lowy Institute poll findings on climate change
.

Australia has set a target to cut emissions by 26 percent of
2005 levels by 2030. At the 25th United Nations Climate Change
Conference in Madrid in December 2019, one of the major sticking
points was Australia wanting to use an expired allocation of
credits (often referred to as “carryover
credits
“) – which is an accounting measure where a country
counts historical emissions reduction that exceeded old
international goals against its current target.

According to Climate Council,
Australia’s leading climate change communications organisation,
“After successfully negotiating extraordinary low targets under
the Kyoto Protocol (Australia’s 2020 target – 5 percent below
2000 levels), the Australian Government is planning to use these
expired allocations from an entirely different agreement to
undermine the Paris Agreement as well. The Australian
Government’s use of disingenuous and dodgy accounting tricks to
meet its woefully inadequate 2030 climate target is irresponsible
because it masks genuine climate action”.

  • Australia has one of the
    highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide
    in the world. It
    contributes 1.3 percent to global emissions with a relatively small
    population of about 25 million people.
  • Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of
    metallurgical coal, accounting for 17 percent of world production
    in 2018, and is the world’s second-largest thermal coal exporter,
    exporting 210 million tonnes in 2018-19 valued at AUD 26
    million.

Environmental groups argue that it is feasible for Australia to
move to a low carbon economy and the country has huge potential for
solar power and wind energy.

Former Australian Greens Party leader and veteran environmental
activist, Bob Brown told IPS, “We need leadership in a global
climate crisis, beginning with no more coal mines or gas or oil
wells, but transferring to renewable energy. This is the sunny
country and we have fantastic solar technology. We have the ability
to become world leaders in both the technology and its application
and the export of that application to countries like India.”

The economic impact of the Australian bushfire crisis will be
huge as so many properties have perished in the fires. “The
insurance claims will be enormous, but so too will be the permanent
climate change-related rise in insurance premiums going forward.
The destruction and disruption of businesses in regional NSW and
Victoria is ongoing for many months, again this cost is huge, but
unquantifiable,” Tim Buckley, Director of Energy Finance Studies
at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis
(IEEFA), told IPS.

The fires have been devastating for livestock, wildlife and
their habitat. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Australia’s Senior
Manager Land Clearing and Restoration, Dr Stuart Blanch told IPS,
“Until the fires subside the full extent of damage will remain
unknown. Many forests will take decades to recover and the fires
are worsening Australia’s extinction crisis”.

Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney
estimates that 480 million native mammals, birds and reptiles have
been affected by fires in NSW alone since September 2019
. This
includes the death of thousands of koalas, along with other iconic
species such as kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, kookaburras,
cockatoos and honeyeaters.

  • The
    koala
    , an arboreal mammal endemic only to Australia, is highly
    susceptible to heat stress and dehydration. Images of burnt koalas
    being rescued have been heartwrenching.
  • Deborah Tabart, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation,
    had warned in May 2019 that the marsupial was “functionally
    extinct”.
  • “We now stand even more firmly on that position. The heat, no
    water in river systems (which are so important to a healthy koala
    habitat), drought, mis-management of water and unsustainable use of
    the environment are all key players in this catastrophe. Bushfires
    have decimated koala’s natural habitat. We immediately need a
    Koala
    Protection Act,
    ” she told IPS.

The acrid bushfire smoke blanketing cities and towns has exposed
people to very high levels of air pollution over extended time
periods.

Bruce Thompson, Dean of the School of Health Sciences
at Swinburne University said, “The smoke generated by the
current bush fires is a very serious health issue especially for
those with respiratory conditions such as Asthma, Emphysema,
Bronchitis and even upper respiratory conditions such as
laryngitis. The central issue is not only the large particles that
are inhaled but more importantly the very fine particles that are
less than 2.5microns (pm2.5). These particles cause inflammation
and get inhaled very deep into the lungs causing the lung to become
inflamed. They also can cross over from the lung into the
bloodstream and cause inflammation in areas such as the
heart.”

  • The bushfires have also impacted drinking water catchments.
    Professor Stuart Khan, Professor of Civil & Environmental
    Engineering at the University of New South Wales said, “While
    rainfall is desperately needed to help extinguish fires and
    alleviate the drought, contaminated runoff to waterways will
    present a new wave of challenges regarding risks to drinking water
    quality.
  • “Bushfire ash is largely composed or organic carbon, which
    will biodegrade in waterways, potentially leading to reduced oxygen
    concentrations and poor water quality. Ash also contains
    concentrated nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorous, which
    may stimulate the growth of algae and cyanobacteria in
    waterways”.

At the time of press more than 100 fires were still raging in
south-eastern Australia.

The post
Australia’s Bushfires Bring Mounting Pressure to Reduce
Greenhouse Gases
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Australia’s Bushfires Bring Mounting Pressure to Reduce Greenhouse Gases