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Bushfire at Hallidays Point in NSW © Martin Von Stoll

Bushfire at Hallidays Point in NSW © Martin Von Stoll

Will Australia choose to be a climate laggard or a leader?

29 Nov 2019

  • energy
  • farming
  • koalas
  • new south wales
  • queensland
  • renewable energy
  • tree-clearing

Stuart Blanch, Senior Manager, Land Clearing and Restoration, WWF-Australia
Nicky Ison, Energy Transition Manager, WWF-Australia

New South Wales and Queensland are in the grip of a bushfire emergency that has scorched two million hectares.


It’s a tragedy. Six people are dead. Four thousand firefighters battled 200 bushfires. Around 700 homes destroyed. Perhaps 300 million trees singed, burnt or killed. Livestock are left dead, burnt or without feed. Tens of millions of native animals have been killed or made homeless. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of koalas are dead, with most killed far from the TV cameras and wildlife rescuers.


WWF extends its sincere sympathies to the families who have lost loved ones and the communities who have lost their homes and possessions.

Koala hospitals and wildlife carers are overwhelmed, exhausted and in shock.


Bushfires are burning in places and times of the year they never used to. Fires have burnt in every state. Rainforests don’t usually burn. But over the past year, they have been razed at Terania Creek in northern NSW, at Binna Burra on the border, and at Eungella in central north Queensland.


Bushfires now start in winter and burn through till autumn. Rising temperatures and failed rains are making winter more like spring, and spring and autumn more like summer.


Fire behaviour is changing. Big forest fires are feared, rightly so. People wonder what the future holds for forests and fires in rural and regional Australia.


Trees are our climate allies. They are part of the solution. They are made of carbon. Carbon is stored in trunks, leaves and roots. When these die and rot, the carbon is stored in the soil as humus.


We need more trees for wildlife habitat and to stabilise the climate, and we need to stabilise the climate to save trees and the animals that live in them.


We need bold solutions and real action.


That’s why WWF is calling for Australia to transition by 2030 from deforestation to reforestation, and from coal to renewables.


We’re calling for a national plan to save and grow two billion trees by 2030 that benefits wildlife, the climate and rural and regional communities.


This can be achieved by stopping major deforestation, protecting existing bush, and reforesting 10 million hectares with natural habitats to store one billion tonnes of forest carbon.


Each year, in Australia, an estimated 50 million trees are bulldozed. That’s 137,000 trees each day killed or damaged. This occurs across half a million hectares, mainly to grow more grass for cattle. Flattened trees are then usually burnt. This releases the carbon with oxygen in the air which makes carbon dioxide, which causes climate heating.


Every year, Australian deforestation releases 47 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. That’s almost the same amount of carbon pollution produced by the five coal-fired power stations in New South Wales.


Forty-four per cent of Australia’s forests and woodlands have been destroyed in 231 years. Currently, our remaining forests store 22 billion tonnes of carbon, a globally significant carbon asset, in efforts to create a stable, safe climate.


During this emergency, on top of the terrible drought, we need bold natural climate solutions that conserve nature and stabilise the climate, with equity for landholders and a prosperous future for rural and regional communities.


Some commentators and politicians have called for more cool season burns to reduce fuel loads as the solution to stopping the bushfires. Some accuse National Parks of being the source of fires, despite most fires starting on private land, and budget cuts preventing rangers from implementing cool season burn plans. And some want to weaken vegetation laws to allow much larger buffer zones around homes.


Hazard reduction and asset protection zones have important roles in managing bushfire, but they’re not silver bullets. They never were, and the climate emergency is overwhelming bushfire management. The cool season is becoming shorter, reducing the time available for safe hazard reduction.


Yes, governments need to dramatically increase – or reinstate – funding for National Parks to do hazard reduction burns. Yes, governments and companies need to increase funding for Aboriginal fire management and carbon farming to naturally regenerate forests and woodlands. But fire ecology is complex, and long unburnt areas can, in fact, be less bushfire-prone than frequently burnt areas.


We need to support firefighters and communities during the emergency. We need to continually find options for managing vegetation and fuel loads.


But these are increasingly ineffective. Backburning is a key tool for managing bushfires, but firefighting experts say this would not have prevented the emergency.


We must hasten Australia’s – and the world’s – transition from coal to renewables to limit the impacts of climate heating on bushfires.


The climate emergency is creating the bushfire emergency.


As bushfires worsen, we need more forests and woodlands, not less. Forest destruction, both in Australia and globally, is making the climate emergency worse by releasing more carbon which increases air temperatures.


On top of this, there are fewer trees to make rain and cool local temperatures. Instead of allowing and encouraging landholders to destroy forests, governments should be passing strong laws to protect forests and woodlands. But this must occur together with greatly increasing financing for landholders to be environmental stewards and rain farmers, growing carbon farming jobs for Indigenous rangers to manage cool season burns to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic firestorms.


Clearing larger buffer zones can’t prevent ember attack from reaching houses in a bushfire under catastrophic fire danger conditions. Fires now spot kilometres ahead of a fire front.


Climate heating is making it impossible to stop bushfires due to record-breaking hot, dry conditions. Rainfall has fallen by 30% in southeast Australia over the past 30 years. Humidity levels are very low. Forests are more flammable. Firefighters have less water to access.


And it’s only spring. The BOM predicts a hot dry summer in the southeast.


Those on the frontlines of this bushfire – those who have lost their homes like Fiona and Aaron and Shiann Broderick, those who had to evacuate like Glen Innes Mayor Carol Sparks, and former leaders of fire agencies like Greg Mullens - are all calling for action on climate change.

When it comes to acting on climate Australia has a choice - to be a laggard or a leader. For the last 15 years, Australia has (mostly) chosen to be a laggard. Our climate pollution continues to rise and most state and federal governments do not have legislated climate policy in line with what the climate science says is necessary and what the Paris Agreement requires of signatory countries like Australia.


The choice to be a laggard comes with significant costs. The insurance industry has put the cost of these bushfires at $100 million and rising in NSW alone. And it’s not even summer yet. Indeed, as a dry continent, Australia is likely to be one of the countries worst impacted by the climate crisis.


Conversely, the choice to become a climate leader comes with huge economic opportunities. When Australia has chosen to lead in the past we have helped change the world. We invented the WiFi, EFTPOS and the modern solar cell. Today, with over 2.1 million solar households, Australia has one of the highest rates of household solar globally. Australia has some of the best solar and wind resources in the world. Meanwhile Aussie companies – big and small, run by people like you and me – are leading the way in clean energy solutions like grids, batteries and electric vehicles. Australia has all the tools and the solutions to become a clean energy powerhouse. There are plans to export renewable energy to the world using green hydrogen and high voltage cables from Northern Australia to Southeast Asia.


Australia has the opportunity to lead the world on forests and climate. Let’s not wait for another bushfire emergency to start the transition.

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