Australian Bushfires Special Report: How will Australia respond to the devastating EHS impacts?

by Tamlyn Jayatilaka 11 Mar. 2020

In this Enhesa Special Report, EHS Legal Consultant, Tamlyn Jayatilaka covers the recent devastation of the Australian Bushfires. This report explores the environmental and human health impacts of this disaster, the economic costs incurred and how climate change contributed to the severity of the fires. The report also provides perspective on whether climate action will be taken in response to the fires and what this all means for health and safety regulation in Australia.

Background

Daytime skies turned red and black as Australian firefighters battled for months to contain hundreds of blazes across the nation. Amplified by a warming, drying climate,[1] this season’s fires are more intense and widespread than in Australia’s past, with New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria in the southeast taking the hardest hit. Reaching moss-covered rainforests and even the usually unaffected Tasmania, the fires even created their own dangerous weather systems.[2]

These fires have resulted in devastating environmental, health and economic impacts to the region. If climate change is not mitigated, traditional fire seasons[3] in Australia will not only intensify—but lengthen.[4] Companies operating in the region can consequently expect future disruptions to commerce. While direct loss to property and wealth is a possibility, more common impacts include:

  • employee absence due to illness,
  • transport delays,
  • power and communications disturbances, and
  • loss of productivity and interruptions from workers abandoning their desks due to the haze.

Environmental impacts

Currently, the size of the area burned is around 15 million acres. This equates to twice the size of Belgium, more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia.[5]

Ecologist Chris Dickman, from the University of Sydney, estimated the death of half a billion animals, either immediately, or otherwise from lack of food, water, shelter[6] or increased risk of predation.[7] The figure excludes fish, frogs, bats, livestock and insects—the latter of which are vital for pollination as well as waste management. Dickman and others have since upped the figure to 1 billion animal deaths, reiterating that this is still a conservative number.[8] There are particular concerns for the survival of certain species, such as the dunnart, koala, hastings river mouse, regent honeyeater, blue mountains water skink, brush-tailed rock-wallaby, southern corroboree frog, quokka, northern eastern bristlebird and greater glider, many of which were already vulnerable from land clearing and invasive species.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre has expressed its concern for the Gondwana rainforests, which include the largest areas of wet subtropical rainforest on the planet and nearly all the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. These forests are considered a living link to the vegetation that covered the southern supercontinent Gondwana before it broke up about 180 million years ago.[9]

Australia is considered megadiverse. That is, belonging to a group of countries that together are home to 70 percent of the world’s biological diversity but make up just 10 percent of Earth’s surface. Another such biodiversity hot spot – the Stirling Ranges near Perth, Western Australia (WA) – also lost 150 square miles of the region between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Conservation in such regions are essential for securing the planet’s global biodiversity.[10]

Current estimates show 350 million tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere as a result of the fires, which is roughly two-thirds of Australia’s annual emissions budget from 2018-19.[11] It could take more than a century for forests to reabsorb the CO2, yet the blazes are destroying the vegetation vital for absorbing CO2. With thousands of residents forced to flee, and others cut off in need of rescue from military ships and aircraft, Australia is only about halfway through its fire season. As such, the threat is far from over.

Effect on human health

Apart from the loss of life, air quality conditions pose a great risk, especially for sensitive groups, such as children, pregnant women, those with pre-existing health issues/disease and the elderly. Unsurprisingly, the Australian Medical Association formally declared climate change a health emergency.[12]

In NSW, pollution levels are monitored by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Air Quality Index. It measures several categories of particles; the most concerning to public health is PM2.5. Data shows that PM2.5 levels have been well above the 200 considered “hazardous” for weeks.[13] Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, the home of millions, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached 5,185 at 8 pm on New Year’s Day.[14] Adelaide and Melbourne are also heavily affected.

The fires are not only impacting Australians. Winds are blowing plumes of hazardous smoke, dust and ash thousands of miles to New Zealand, causing glaciers to turn brown. With the air pollution even reaching its way to Chile in South America, NASA has predicted the smoke to make a “full circuit” around the globe.[15]

Economic cost

The total cost of the fires, directly and indirectly,[16] could easily surpass that of 2009 blazes that burned a smaller 450,000 hectares and cost an estimated $4.4 billion.[17] On top of this, constant news of devastation, as well as the effects of air pollution in major cities, is expected to adversely affect consumer sentiment.[18] As such, discretionary spending will take a hit, accentuated by higher prices for food and a likely rise in insurance premiums flowing from the fires.

The fires, however, may not necessarily affect Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the extent one might expect. While forests, animals and orchards have been lost, resulting in total agriculture and forestry production to fall 6.9 percent% in 2019, it only accounted for 0.1 percent loss of GDP over the year.[19] The economy will receive a boost when rebuilding gets underway. Although this appears to be positive news, it is also an example of why GDP is not a good measure of welfare. It does not consider that only some version of the previous quality of life is retained and other broader social costs.

In Canberra on the first day of the year, when air quality was more than 20 times above hazardous levels, restaurants, shops, childcare centers, museums and government departments were shut down. On January 10, Eyre Highway, the only sealed highway linking eastern and western Australia, reopened after being closed for 12 days due to bushfires. The Kings Highway linking Canberra with the south coast was closed for a large part of January, while the Princes Highway on the east coast has been shut numerous times.[20]

This is a clear sign of how environmental factors threaten the global economy. Economies are greatly impacted when a population is choked by smoke, when transport, communications and power are disrupted and when health is in peril. In addition, stressors are only predicted to worsen. The loss of coral reefs, repeated destruction of infrastructure from extreme weather events (not only from fires in Australia, but also floods),[21] water scarcity, migration due to sea-level changes and lower crop yields are all increasingly important issues.[22]

What role did climate change play?

Fires are often sparked by natural causes, such as lightning striking dry vegetation. There has been speculation about arson as the cause of the recent fires, however, there is much disagreement and confusion around current events. According to The Guardian, Victoria police state that there is no evidence that any of the bushfires were caused by arson. NSW police, on the other hand, say that they have charged 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires this season.[23] While there is no dispute that arson remains a serious problem in Australia and that arsonists are responsible for at least some of the devastating impact, it does not detract from scientific evidence showing that climate change is lengthening and intensifying Australia’s bushfire seasons through the influence of temperature, precipitation, weather patterns and fuel conditions.[24]

January, February, March, April, July, October, November and December of 2019 were all amongst the warmest on record for Australian mean temperature for their respective months. The country is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades, and a heatwave in December broke the record for the highest nationwide average temperature of 41.9°C.[25] It is the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year. This reflected global temperatures, which continued the planet’s long-term warming trend, with the past five years the warmest of the last 140 years.[26]

The climate each year reflects long-term trends through the influence of climate change, random variations in weather and slowly evolving natural climate drivers—such as El Niño. A main driver behind Australia’s extreme heat has been a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (ICD) (another natural climate driver). The ICD affected Australia from May until the end of 2019 and played a major role in suppressing rainfall and raising temperatures. The Southern Annular Mode, on the other hand, was very negative, causing strong winds (known as the Roaring Forties). The consequences of these two patterns, intensified by global warming,[27] caused the driest and hottest year on record for the Australian continent, as noted in the Bureau of Meteorology’s 2019 annual climate summary.[28]

The most recent special report on global warming by the UN confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.[29] According to a review of 57 scientific papers, global heating has led to an increase in the frequency and severity of fire weather[30] around the world, increasing the risk to people and property.[31] This risk has already unfolded in many regions, including the western US and Canada, southern Europe, Scandinavia and Amazonia. An analysis of 67 years of Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) data confirmed the findings for Australia,[32] while a study of Queensland’s historic 2018 bushfire season found the extreme temperatures that coincided with the fires were four times more likely because of human-caused climate change. As summarized by the National Environmental Science Programme, human-induced climate change has “already resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia.”[33]

Will climate action be taken in response to the fires?

The answer to this question is to be determined. However, an examination of the way that climate change is traditionally regulated in Australia may be informative.

Limiting global warming requires drastic changes to energy, transportation, food and building systems. While smoke from bushfires evades regulation, as it is considered natural and outside of human control, the fires could be a turning point for strengthening lax climate regulation in Australia. Entities from various sectors are already calling for the development of climate strategies, such as the Farmers for Climate Action and the Climate and Health Alliance.[34] Renew, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Energy Efficiency Council, and others are also working on a plan to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings that is starting to gain traction.[35] However, it is worth noting that the country at a federal level remains governed by a conservative coalition, influenced in part by Australia’s long mining history and powerful coal lobby.

This was reflected in the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index,[36] which assesses national climate action in the categories of emissions, renewable energy, energy use, and policy. Concerning national and international climate policy, Australia was the worst-performing with the lowest possible rating of 0.0, whilst overall it was ranked as the sixth-worst performing from 57 countries.[37] The report labels the Morrison government as regressive, citing examples such as the dismissal of IPCC reports, lack of attendance at the UN Climate Action Summit, the withdrawal from funding the Green Climate Fund, failure to develop a long-term mitigation strategy or clarify how it will meet emission reduction targets.[38]

Nevertheless, some states are taking strides, despite it being at odds with their own party. The New South Wales Government, for example, has commissioned the state’s chief scientist to prepare a blueprint for a radically decarbonized economy. Commonwealth chief scientist Alan Finkel has also flagged green hydrogen—hydrogen fuel created by renewable energy sources—as a potential solution at a recent meeting of state and federal ministers.[39]

The independent Member for Parliament Zali Steggall is also finalizing a draft bill for a “national climate change framework” that sets out a roadmap for Australia to transition to a decarbonized economy. Under the bill, a statutory long-term target of net zero emissions by 2050 would be set, requiring five-yearly economy-wide carbon budgets to meet the goal. The legislation is modelled on the UK’s Climate Change Act and mirrors framework laws in place in New Zealand and Ireland.[40]

What does this mean for occupational health and safety?

Occupational health and safety in Australia is regulated purely at a state and territory level, yet is fairly uniform. Under section 19 of the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act (adopted in all jurisdictions except WA and Victoria),[41] employers have a broad, primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety workers, including a safe work environment. In addition, under section 40 of the model WHS Regulations,[42] employers must ensure that workers in extreme weather are able to carry out work without risk to their health and safety.

SafeWork Australia—an Australian government statutory body established to develop national policy relating to WHS—states that employers, as part of their general duty, must take measures to manage risks to health when air quality is poor. This may include working indoors where possible, rescheduling outdoor work until conditions improve, cleaning dust and debris that could affect machinery, and ensuring that outdoor workers have access to respiratory protection such as a P2 face mask. Paper face masks and P1 masks are considered ineffective as they fail to filter out smoke particles.[43] This was reiterated by state authorities across the country.[44]

However, there are no specific regulations concerning bushfire smoke exposure. Companies might, in the future, expect more concrete regulation to ensure that WHS regulations are fit for purpose in a changing Australian climate. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has already called upon the government to update WHS laws to tackle risks posed by climate change (such as hotter days and more bushfires), resulting in conditions that are hazardous to workers. Considering that nearly one in four workers spend part of their workday outside, the ACTU has argued for strengthened regulation to ensure that workers can’t be ordered to work in dangerous heat or air quality, as has been reported in previous weeks.[45]

Conclusion

The recent bushfire events make it clearer than ever that unless there are global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the climate is stabilized, recent temperatures in Australia considered extreme will become commonplace, increasing the risk of catastrophic conditions. For the sake of biodiversity, human health and economic success, Australia should respond with strengthened environmental regulation, including workplace health and safety regulation adapted to these new realities.

 While the future will tell what regulatory path will unfold, past performance indicates that climate action will continue to fall short unless priorities are reshaped by these recent events. Companies operating in Australia should consider how regulation that combats climate change could be beneficial to business, not to mention the people, flora and fauna of Australia. 

Footnotes

[1] Climate Council: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/bushfire-briefing-paper/

[2] Bush fires can be so large and hot that they generate their own unpredictable weather systems. These so-called firestorms can produce lightning, strong winds and even fire tornadoes.

[3] For northern Australia the peak bushfire period is during the dry season, which is generally throughout winter and spring. In southern Australia the bushfire season peaks in summer and autumn, Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/weather-services/fire-weather-centre/bushfire-weather/index.shtml

[4] Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation: https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/OandA/Areas/Assessing-our-climate/State-of-the-Climate-2018/Australias-changing-climate

[5] BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50951043

[6] In previous circumstances, extensive patches of unburnt areas were left, which kept species out of the open, helping them to survive.

[7] This estimate was made using previous research compiled in 2007 on the impact of land clearing in New South Wales, by comparing mammal population estimates with the area of vegetation, University of Sydney: https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/01/03/a-statement-about-the-480-million-animals-killed-in-nsw-bushfire.html

[8] Ibid.

[9] World Heritage Centre: https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/2062

[10] Conservation international: https://www.conservation.org/priorities/biodiversity-hotspots

[11] Global Fire Emissions Database: https://www.globalfiredata.org/

[12] Australian Medical Association: https://ama.com.au/ausmed/climate-change-health-emergency

[13] New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry and Environment: https://www.dpie.nsw.gov.au/air-quality/current-air-quality

[14] Australian Capital Territory Government: https://www.health.act.gov.au/about-our-health-system/population-health/environmental-monitoring/monitoring-and-regulating-air

[15] NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/nasa-animates-world-path-of-smoke-and-aerosols-from-australian-fires

[16] For example, loss of tourism, reduced worker productivity from daily disruption, and increased health spending.

[17] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/08/economic-impact-of-australias-bushfires-set-to-exceed-44bn-cost-of-black-saturday

[18] Australian Financial Review: https://www.afr.com/policy/economy/bushfires-crisis-unlikely-to-hit-economic-growth-jp-morgan-20200106-p53p5f

[19] Ibid.

[20] Australian Financial Review: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/the-ripple-effects-of-the-fires-will-long-be-felt-20200110-p53qac

[21] There has already been heavy rains in east of Australia, which not only caused its own property damage, but also killed hundreds of thousands of native fish in multiple mass death events across various locations at the Murray-Darling Basin. This is because a lack of vegetation combined with exposed soil means that bushfire ash and sludge runs into and contaminants waterways: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/feb/02/murray-darling-thousands-of-fish-have-died-in-nsw-in-past-two-weeks

[22] IPCC, 2018: Global Warming of 1.5°C.An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.

[23] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/08/police-contradict-claims-spread-online-exaggerating-arsons-role-in-australian-bushfires

[24] Ibid.

[25] World Meteorological Organization: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/australia-suffers-devastating-fires-after-hottest-driest-year-record

[26] NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-2019-second-warmest-year-on-record

[27] A 2018 study in the journal Nature Communications found the number of extreme positive dipole events goes up as climate heating continues: Cai, W., Wang, G., Gan, B. et al. Stabilised frequency of extreme positive Indian Ocean Dipole under 1.5 °C warming. Nat Commun 9, 1419 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03789-6

[28] Bureau of Meteorology: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/annual/aus/

[29] The report also states that every decade since the 1960s has been clearly warmer than the one before: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

[30] The conditions in which wildfires are likely to start.

[31] Climate council: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/resources/bushfire-briefing-paper/

[32] Dowdy, A.J.2018Climatological Variability of Fire Weather in Australia. J. Appl. Meteor. Climatol., 57221–234, https://doi.org/10.1175/JAMC-D-17-0167.1

[33] National Environmental Science Programme : http://nespclimate.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/A4_4pp_brochure_NESP_ESCC_Bushfires_FINAL_Nov11_2019_WEB.pdf

[34] Climate and Health Alliance: https://www.caha.org.au/national-strategy-climate-health-wellbeing

[35] Australian Council of Social Service: https://www.acoss.org.au/5849-2/

[36] Published annually by Germanwatch, the NewClimate Institute and the Climate Action Network since 2005, the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) is “an independent monitoring tool of countries’ climate protection performance. It aims to enhance transparency in international climate politics and enables the comparability of climate protection efforts and progress made by individual countries.” From: https://www.climate-change-performance-index.org/.

[37] Climate Change Performance Index: https://newclimate.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/CCPI-2020-Results_Web_Version.pdf

[38] For example, the government has budgeted $40 billion for fossil fuel subsidies, rather than taxation write-offs for green assets, Australian Conservation Foundation: https://www.acf.org.au/budget_2019_20_devaluing_our_environment_fuelling_global_warming

[39] Australian Government Department of Industry, Innovation and Science: https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/default/files/2019-11/australias-national-hydrogen-strategy.pdf

[40] Zali Steggall: https://www.zalisteggall.com.au/climate_change_national_framework_for_adaptation_and_action_bill_2020

[41] SafeWork Australia: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1702/model-whs-act-21march2016.pdf

[42] SafeWork Australia: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1902/model-whs-regulations-15-january-2019.pdf

[43] SafeWork Australia: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/media-centre/news/bushfires-and-air-pollution

[44] For example, SafeWork NSW: https://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/safety-starts-here/physical-safety-at-work-the-basics/bushfire-smoke

[45] Australian Council of Trade Unions: https://www.actu.org.au/actu-media/media-releases/2019/laws-must-adapt-to-keep-workers-safe-in-changing-climate