Environment: Fires expose Australia's dirty record

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bushfires are racing across south-eastern Australia, threatening towns and suburbs. Robert Milliken in Sydney says the fires are also fuelling criticism of Australia's stand on global warming, which has left it isolated at the Kyoto conference on climate change.

After three days of fearsome fires, which have taken the lives of two fire-fighters, invaded the suburbs of southern Sydney and left more than 600,000 acres devastated, the authorities are preparing for a red alert today. The worst fires were blazing near Coonabarabran, in north-west New South Wales, the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, and Lithgow, west of Sydney.

But many are asking if Australia is not getting a foretaste of more natural disasters, unless it changes its policy and helps to cut the emission of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Fighting and surviving fires is embedded into the Australian psyche. But there is little doubt that Australia is experiencing such tragedies with growing regularity. Few people this year were prepared for a return of fires so soon after the last conflagrations in 1994, when the suburbs in bushland valleys close to the centre of Sydney went up in flames.

The last widespread fires before that were those of "Ash Wednesday" in 1983, when 76 people died in the states of Victoria and South Australia; in 1967, when 62 died in Tasmania and on "Black Friday" in 1937, which took 71 lives in Victoria.

This year, the fires began even before the official start of the Australian summer in December, getting under way last week during some of the hottest and driest November weather on record.

The conditions were caused in part by El Nino - the waether phenomenon caused by warm ocean currents in the east Pacific which is said to be responsible for the worst drought in memory in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

But the fires are also being linked to wider fears about global warming that have brought 160 countries together in Kyoto this week in search of agreement on action. There, Australia faces diplomatic isolation.

While such a treaty would rely on binding targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, Australia, alone among the world's rich countries, is proposing to increase its emissions.

John Howard, the Prime Minister, has said Australia's greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase by 18 per cent above 1990 levels by 2010. The European Union, by contrast, has proposed a 15 per cent cut.

Australia is already the world's sixth-highest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita, behind Canada, the United States, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. It is one of the biggest emitters of methane, which is a consequence of the clearance of forests for farming.

Australia's stand has drawn criticism from Britain and furious attacks from several small Pacific island nations. They blame their big neighbour for contributing to rising sea levels that threaten to sink them. With a land mass the size of the United States, and a population of only 18 million, Australia argues that it should be a special case.

Its major exports are metals, minerals, food and chemicals, and their production involves intensive energy driven by greenhouse-producing fossil fuels such as coal; Australia uses no nuclear energy. The country maintains that, if it was forced to peg 2010 emissions at 1990 levels, 90,000 potential jobs and A$12 bn (pounds 5bn) worth of investment could be lost.

Environmental critics say that a country as blessed with sunshine and empty spaces as Australia should be doing more to develop alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power. They accuse Mr Howard's conservative coalition government of bowing to the fossil-fuel lobby.

Unless Australia changes this approach, more fires can be expected like those that have taken hold in tinder-dry conditions this week. Such fires become almost impossible to control when the temperature rises above 35C and humidity falls. According to a recent scientific report, the number of days in Australia per year when the temperature will rise above 35C is expected to double by 2070.