Australia’s bushfires bring mounting pressure to reduce greenhouse gases

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. “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,” said Plater.

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”.

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