We don’t have money to burn on green mania

27th February 2020

Scenes of devastation from Australia’s fires have been heartbreaking. How do we stop this suffering? For many campaigners and politicians, the answer is clear-cut: drastic climate policies. When we examine the evidence, this simple answer falls short.

Australia is the world’s most fire-prone continent. In 1900, 11 per cent of its surface burned annually. These days, 5 per cent of the country burns every year. By the end of the century, if we do not stop climate change, higher temperatures and an increase in aridity will likely mean a 0.7 percentage point increase in burnt area, an increase from 5.3 per cent of Australia to 6 per cent.

This increase is not trivial and it is an argument for effective climate change action. By far the most practical policy, with the most impact, is a dramatic increase in investment in low and zero-carbon energy innovation.

That’s because, for decades to come, solar and wind energy will be neither cheap enough nor effective enough to replace fossil fuels. Today, they make up only 1.1 per cent of global energy use and the International Energy Agency estimates that even after we spend $US3 trillion ($4.47 trillion) more on subsidies, they will not even reach 5 per cent by 2040. Innovation is needed to bring down the price of green energy. We need to find breakthroughs for batteries, nuclear, carbon capture and a plethora of other promising technologies. Innovation can solve our climate challenge.

Unfortunately, many reports on Australia’s fires have exploited the carnage to push a specific agenda, resting on three ideas: that bushfires are worse than ever, that this is caused by global warming, and that the only solution is for political leaders to make even bigger carbon-cut promises.

Globally, bushfires burn less land than it used to. Since 1900, global burnt area has reduced by more than one-third because of agriculture, fire suppression and forest management. In the satellite era, NASA and other groups document significant decreases.

Surprisingly, this decrease is even true for Australia. Satellites show that from 1997 to 2018 the burnt area declined by one-third. Australia’s current fire season has seen less area burned than in previous years. Up to January 26, bushfires burned 19.4 million hectares in Australia — about half the average burn over the similar timeframe of 37 million hectares in the satellite record. (Actually the satellites show 46 million hectares burnt, but 9 million hectares are likely from prescribed burns.)

When the media suggests Australia’s fires are “unprecedented in scale”, it is wrong. Australia’s burnt area declined by more than a third from 1900 to 2000, and has declined across the satellite period. This fire season, at the time of writing, 2.5 per cent of Australia’s area has burned compared with the past 10 years’ 4.8 per cent average by this point.

What is different this year is that fires have been mostly in NSW and Victoria. These are important states with a little more than half the country’s population — and many of its media outlets.

But suggesting fires are caused by global warming rests on cherrypicking these two regions with more fire and ignoring the remaining 87 per cent of Australia’s landmass, where burned area has declined.

Peer-reviewed estimates of the future of Australia’s fire threat see a long-term increase in burnt area because of global warming. But these estimates show the effect of climate change does not increase Australia’s burnt area until the 2030s or 2040s.

A new review of available data suggests it’s not actually possible to detect a link between global warming and fire for Australia today. An increase will become detectable only in the 2040s. The images coming from Australia are shocking, but images should not trump science. Along with many other campaigners, the Australian Greens argue that preventing fires is about “rapidly transitioning to a renewable energy economy”. Carbon-cutting promises from politicians are not going to do a thing.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand is aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The government’s own commissioned report shows this will cost 16 per cent of the nation’s annual economy, or $US5 trillion across the century. It will reduce temperatures by only four-thousandths of a degree by 2100.

Replicate those costs across Australian states and around the world; taxpayers are just not going to withstand that kind of pain, regardless of the intention.

The world’s poor countries are never going to be able to afford to follow through. The costs alone make this “solution” to climate change wishful thinking.

Moreover, even if Australia were dramatically to change its climate policy overnight, the impact on fires would be effectively zero. If Australia had completely ended its fossil fuel use way back in 2012, the UN standard climate model shows the impact on fires this year would be literally immeasurable.

Even if Australia could somehow be entirely fossil fuel-free for the entire century, burnt area in 2100 would be 5.997 per cent instead of 6 per cent.

This feeble, flawed response is pathetic. We need to spend far more resources on green energy research and development to develop medium-term solutions to climate change. And we also should focus on the many straightforward measures that would help now.

Bushfire scientists have consistently told us forest fuel levels keep increasing, making extreme bushfires much more likely. Controlled burns cheaply and effectively reduce high-intensity wildfires. Other sensible policies include better building codes, mechanical thinning, safer powerlines, reducing the potential for spread of lightning-caused bushfires, campaigns to reduce deliberate ignitions, and fuel reduction around the perimeter of human settlements.

The compassionate, effective response to Australia’s tragedy is to focus on the policies that could actually help.

Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He has been named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

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