Australia’s Bush Fire Crisis: Policies and Politics

Merieleen Engtipi
February 9, 2020


Image Courtesy: BBC

Australia’s bush fires, unfortunately, happens almost every year during the dry season, which begins in September and extends from December to February. However, 2019 saw one of the worst bush fires ever in the history of Australia. Since last September, dozens of fires have broken out that have caused immense loss and posed severe threats to humans, wildlife, besides disrupting basic amenities. The latest bushfires have raised alarming questions about the impact of climate change in Australia. The ongoing fires took an unprecedented turn by getting lengthier and more threatening. It is noteworthy here to mention one of the deadliest bushfires just a decade ago in 2009 when a total of 178 people lost their lives, and more than 2000 households were destroyed and severely affected animal species trapped in fire in Australia. The year last has been recorded as one of the hottest and driest years in recorded history by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. The emission of greenhouse gases, which although does not start a fire by themselves, but most certainly create factors that contribute to the blaze, emerged as an important cause. The current state of emergency restated the debate on climate policy adopted by the government to cut down emissions and likewise raised debate to its commitment to the international stage. However, deniability and the economy card go hand-in-hand when it comes to implementing policies on climate change by the ruling government. 

Causes and Impact

Many parts of Australia suffer the consequence of drought resulting from a hotter and drier climate. Accompanied by persistent heat waves and strong winds to prolonged drought, it caused unstoppable fire engulfing forests in various regions in Australia. Every state in Australia suffered the brunt of the fires, but the state of New South Wales and Victoria, home to some of the major cities, suffered the most. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said in December that last spring was the driest on record, with the highest nationwide average temperature, above 40 degrees Celsius. The fires may have started in various possible ways, both by human actions such as arson and negligence and natural phenomena caused by lightning and combustion of dry fuels. However, the basic premise remains the same that acts as fuels (high temperature, dry weather, heat waves, strong winds) for the fires to escalate and spread.

At present more than two dozen lives were lost, and nearly 30,000 homes damaged, and the destruction continued as the fires raged. However, it remained deadly to the animal kingdom, with almost a billion-animal species indigenous to Australia having died as a consequence. In New South Wales, the fire engulfed more than five million hectares, along its path, damaging more than 2,000 houses and forcing thousands out of their homes. As the mega blaze proceeded to the country’s capital, Canberra, the city declared a state of emergency. The fire authorities are working round the clock to take control of the situation, and are evacuating people and rescuing animals where necessary. The southernmost state Victoria lost 1.2 million hectares, declared a state of disaster, and emergency warnings are still in place with active fires in the region. With areas neighboring to the blaze and residents returning to their homes, they suffer from the hanging haze condition from the burning smoke. Climate experts explained the vicious cycles relating to bush fires and climate change, with each aggravating the other.

Political divide on Climate Policy

When it comes to climate change policy proposals, the Australian Greens are the extremes, the Labor party are the moderates, and the Liberal-National coalition is the piecemeal providers. Also, there is no dearth of Climate deniers who exist in the government, working their way to influence the government policies, keeping economic issues above all. To cut carbon emissions in Australia, the Liberal-National party proposed a 26-28 percent by 2030; meanwhile, the Labor party proposed a 45 percent cut by 2030, and on the other, Greens proposed a 63-83 percent by 2030. During the 2019 election, the labor party proposed policy to encourage cleaner electricity generation, with a target of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

On the other hand, the coalition government’s grand scheme to meet the 2030 Paris target is through the “Climate-solutions fund,” emission-reduction projects by restoring and protecting native vegetation. The Labor government under Bob Hawke played a leading role in climate change internationally; nevertheless, only to be grappled by the ‘economic cost’ of climate change policy in Australia. The Clean Energy Act of 2011 was introduced by the Gillard Labor government, under which the “carbon pricing scheme” was introduced. However, the coalition government under Abbott repealed the “carbon tax.” It replaced it by setting up an Emission Reduction Fund in December 2014, making Australia the only country that has put a carbon tax in place only to scrap it again.

Government’s response to address Climate Change

Scott Morrison, in his ABC News interview, talked about “resilience and adaptation… to deal with the longer, hotter and drier seasons that increase the risk of bush fire.” The three pillars of tackling the issues of climate change are mitigation, resilience, and adaptation. Mitigation ensures that we are limiting the damage to what has already been done by cutting emissions that produce greenhouse gases. Resilience means being prepared, where communities are resilient to the impact of climate effects. Adaptation can signify adjustment to the new normal. The Climate Solutions Package of the Morrison government, made a $3.5 billion investment to meet the 2030 Paris climate commitments, providing $2 billion to reduce greenhouse gases in the country. 

The current environment also calls out Australia’s climate commitments, as being an exemplar to countries who might want to resort to “carryover credits” from the Kyoto to 2030 Paris commitment. The “carryover credits” acts as “certificates,” in this case for the “over-achievement” of the Australian government by not releasing emissions in the number of tonnes, which they could have under the Kyoto protocol but didn’t, will now be used by the Morrison government to meet the Paris commitment. To reach its 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, if the government uses the Kyoto credit, it will only have to commit to 15 percent emissions reduction to meet its requirement. As for the bush fires, the Prime Minister suggests there is no need for “knee-jerk reactions,” and for climate deniers like Rubert Murdoch’s Sky News Australia, climate policies cannot and will not prevent Australia’s bush fires.

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***