The outlook for Australia to step up efforts on climate change in the wake of the massive forest fires is dimming as the government has shifted focus to hazard prevention and is blaming state agencies for failing in their responsibilities.
Domestic and international pressure to improve climate policies has been heaped on Australia’s conservative Coalition government over the fires, which burned an area of land the size of England, destroyed over 2,000 homes, and killed over a billion animals and at least 28 people.
The fires could slice some 1.6% off Australia’s GDP this year and may have doubled the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions output, Bloomberg reported, based on early estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database.
Expectations that the fires would spark policy changes have created upwards pressure on Australian carbon credits, which are currently valued near record highs at A$17.27 ($11.82) in the country’s limited market.
Australian carbon offset projects are largely land-based, but while the total damage from the fires is yet to be counted, experts say projects have escaped largely unscathed from the calamitous burning.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has maintained throughout that Australia is doing enough to reduce emissions and that it is on track to “meet and beat” its Paris Agreement targets, even though the government’s own data shows that is not the case.
In a cabinet meeting earlier this week, some ministers argued that the Coalition should adjust its climate policy settings in order to gain more credibility, the Guardian newspaper reported, but “no one argued for any substantial policy change that strayed from the Coalition’s election commitments.”
On Tuesday night, the PM told Sky News that hazard prevention is just as important as emission reductions, confirming previous indications that the government is ready to put more money and energy into adaptation measures, but will stick with plans to let energy emissions continue to go unregulated while ramping up fossil fuel exports.
Coalition politicians followed that up on Wednesday with several attacks on state government agencies and politicians, in line with social media claims from earlier in the month that the Greens should take the blame for the fires because they had opposed hazard prevention burning – a claim that has proven to be untrue.
NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro on Wednesday accused agencies working under his own Coalition government of negligence.
“I’ve never minced my words, I genuinely do believe we have agencies within government that haven’t actually honoured their commitment to fuel reduction because of ideological positions,” he told Sky News.
Federal Liberal party MP Tim Wilson launched a similar attack on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews of the Labor party.
“If states are not meeting their obligations to their citizens, if they are not taking the actions to keep homes, and lives, and national parks and state forests safe then they need to be called out,” he told Sky News.
The same claims have been made for weeks by fringe elements on the far right, but have been debunked by senior fire service officials who have pointed out that as Australia has become warmer and drier, the window for conducting fire hazard burning has narrowed.
NSW Labor MP Penny Sharpe rebuked Barilaro’s comments.
“This bullsh*t from John Barilaro has to be called out,” she said on Twitter.
“He has been in cabinet for the last 9 years. In that time his government, no one else, has forced cuts via efficiency dividends to national parks of over A$100 million. These cuts have seen one quarter of rangers cut, including the very people that were responsible for planning and implementing hazard reduction burns,” she said.
One Liberal party official – NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean – has been the sole government voice backing increased action, and earlier this month said New South Wales would release a climate policy this year that would put the state on track to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
However, Kean too fell victim to conservative ire on Wednesday, as Michael Johnson – the NSW parliamentary secretary for agriculture and resources, representing the National party, the smaller of the Coalition partners – demanded he be stripped of his office.
“Matt Kean is trying to play the climate change hero when all he does is make political decisions based on city left voters’ opinions. If we are to address climate change issues, let’s manage the land properly and have energy sources that are reliable and affordable that won’t send families and businesses broke,” Johnson told the Australian newspaper.
While many observers last week were cautiously optimistic after PM Morrison said that the Coalition’s climate policy would “evolve”, few now expect the current government to take any new action on climate change, including raising its 26-28% reduction target at the UN climate talks in Glasgow in November.
“I think they won’t [do anything], but that they will not continue to argue fundamentally against, so that opens the door to gradually better and more stable policy,” one observer told Carbon Pulse.
By Stian Reklev – firstname.lastname@example.org