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Australian wildfires: is Scott Morrison refusing to give way to climate change?

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The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has dismissed complaints about his climate change policies despite the devastating effects of bushfires throughout Australia. A significant number of MPs including MPs from his own party have argued that Morrison needs to take climate change more seriously.

However, the Prime Minister said it was “disappointing” that people were conflating the ongoing fire crisis with Australia’s emission reduction targets.

“We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,” said Morrison.

He said the government would “continue to consider our policies carefully here”, while conceding that the bushfire crisis had elevated the debate over the government’s stance on climate change.

“I think the public opinion on this issue, has been heightened across a whole range of factors and climate is one1.”

The impact of wildfires on climate change

The wildfires have undoubtedly had a devastating effect on the local communities and wildlife in Australia. But how do wildfires effect the global climate?

When trees burn they release carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. It also increases air pollution, not only in the rural locations of the fires but in urban environments. A recent study conducted in Brazil by the University of Birmingham found Smoke from wildfires can worsen air quality in areas up to 2000km away2.

However, although wildfires are considered a catastrophic event, forest fires also play a fundamental role in the functioning of many ecosystems. For instance, many forests in Australia use heat from fire to aid the germination of a new generation of trees.

“We recently calculated that the total biomass of trees killed by large disturbances (including human harvest) is about two billion tons per year, corresponding to 3.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide. However, this doesn’t mean that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases by that amount. In fact, it should be balanced by uptake in the forests that are regrowing after earlier disturbances,” says Dr Thomas Pugh, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at The University of Birmingham.

How does Australia contribute to climate change overall?

Whilst the wildfires have brought Australia’s climate change policies into the spotlight – and Morrisons’ reaction has garnered criticism – in comparison to many other countries, Australia is considered a low contributor to climate change.

Collectively, the top 15 emissions-generating countries generate 72% of CO2 emissions. The rest of the world’s 180 countries, including Australia, produce nearly 28% of the global total – close to the amount China produces on its own3.

Whilst there are concerns that Australia’s carbon emissions are rising – emissions rose 0.6 per cent in the year to March 2019 – the rise is being attributed to growth in the country’s LNG Industry.

“In the last year there is a 0.6 per cent increase but it was more than accounted for by the very strong growth in LNG exports that are reducing global emissions,” commented Australian Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor.

“We’re seeing a reduction in emissions as a result of Australia’s gas exports, but we have to wear a small increase as a result of that. While that is not great for carbon accounting it is a good outcome for the world4.”

And if the world doesn’t agree? International law on environmental intervention is a topic recently explored in an article published by the University of Birmingham. As it stands, there is no direct reference to matters of sovereignty and environmental interventionalism in the 2015 Paris Agreement, nor a punitive system to ensure nations deliver on commitments to reduce emissions.

What do you think? Should Scott Morrison be doing more to combat climate change?

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  1. MARTIN, S. (2020) Scott Morrison rejects criticism of climate policies as MPs call for more action [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30.10.20]
  2. UNKNOWN (2020) Brazilian wildfire pollution worsens air quality in distant cities – study [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30.01.20]
  3. FLEMING, S. (2019) Chart of the day: These countries create most of the world’s CO2 emissions [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30.01.20]
  4. LONG, C. (2019) Australia’s carbon emissions continue to rise despite Government assurances about climate change policy [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30.01.20]

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