Morrison government urged to cut emissions to tackle root cause of worsening bushfires

Lisa Cox
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Australia’s summer bushfires were fuelled by climate change and governments must respond to the royal commission into the disaster with tougher policies to reduce emissions, including “no new coal or gas”, former fire chiefs have said.

Craig Lapsley, a former Victorian emergency management commissioner, said the $10bn cost of the bushfire disaster laid out in the report was “staggering”.

“Not to mention the loss of life, long-term health costs, and impacts on Australian jobs and communities,” he said. “Australians have paid a heavy price for climate change inaction and we will continue to do so if federal and state governments continue to back new coal and gas instead of renewables.”

Greg Mullins, the former New South Wales Fire and Rescue chief, said Friday’s final report should “totally change the landscape of emergency management” in Australia as he called on governments to implement all 80 recommendations made by the commission.

Related: Australia must prepare for future shaped by extreme climate, bushfire royal commission warns

The recommendations include new legislation to allow the prime minister to declare a state of national emergency, development of a national aerial firefighting capability, and the establishment of consistent fire danger rating and warning systems across all states and territories.

The report was broadly welcomed with the federal emergency management minister, David Littleproud, saying cabinet may approve some of the recommendations as early as next week.

Mullins was among a group of former fire and emergency leaders who warned the Morrison government early in 2019 it was facing an unprecedented bushfire season.

The royal commission found natural disasters were becoming increasingly unpredictable and difficult to manage as a result of global heating and the bushfire disaster of 2019-20 was a glimpse of things to come.

“The bushfire royal commission has laid out the facts in no uncertain terms: climate change drove the black summer bushfires and climate change is pushing us into a future of unprecedented bushfire severity,” Mullins said.

Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, from left: Greg Mullins, Lee Johnson, Peter Dunn, Mike Brown, Naomi Brown and Craig Lapsley at a press conference in Sydney, 17 December 2019
Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, from left: Greg Mullins, Lee Johnson, Peter Dunn, Mike Brown, Naomi Brown and Craig Lapsley at a press conference in Sydney on 17 December 2019. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

He said political leaders needed to unite to prepare the country for worsening disasters, including by setting net zero emissions targets, which the federal government has so far failed to do.

“The federal government absolutely must act on the root cause of worsening bushfires in Australia, and take urgent steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mullins said. “This clearly means no new coal or gas, and a rapid transition to renewable energy.”

Fiona Lee, who lost the home she lived in with her husband and daughter near Bobin, said she was pleased the report “had unequivocally acknowledged that climate change fuelled the bushfire crisis”.

She said she was disappointed there was not a specific recommendation that Australia needed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions despite the report’s acknowledgement that measures in energy and environment policy would be necessary to make Australia more resilient to future disasters.

“To me, that translates to reduce fossil fuels,” she said. “But I’m really pleased to see the link between bushfires, drought and climate change drawn. I just hope the federal government takes it seriously.”

Related: 'You can see it in their eyes': long after the bushfires the pain lingers in Cobargo

Mark Greenhill, the mayor of the Blue Mountains, which has been hit by two bushfire disasters since 2013, said the recovery in his community was ongoing.

The 2019-20 fires destroyed 20 homes in the Blue Mountains and damaged many more. Greenhill said his community was also still suffering from shock at the devastation to the Blue Mountains world heritage area – 80% of which was affected.

“From that perspective, I say that climate change drove those bushfires, I say that worse is on the way and I say we have to act now,” he said. “It is clear from the report that climate change fuelled the black summer bushfires and it’s clear from the report that we’ve entered an era of severe consequences based on climate inaction by governments.”

The NSW Rural Fire Service Association said it was pleased the commission had recommended that primary responsibility for firefighting should remain with state governments, but it should be easier for states to call on the federal government for support.

“Local knowledge and experience is incredibly important in the management of natural disasters,” the association’s president, Brian McDonough, said.

He said the royal commission’s recommendations should not distract from the “urgent task” in NSW of implementing the 76 recommendations of the state’s own bushfire inquiry, which McDonough said contained necessary measures to improve firefighter safety.

The NSW emergency services minister, David Elliott, said on Friday the state government would work closely with Canberra to respond to the commission’s recommendations in a way that complemented work that had already commenced after the NSW inquiry.

The federal independent MP Zali Steggall said the report showed an “alarming” outlook for Australia and highlighted the need for regular disaster risk assessments and strong adaptation plans.

Related: Australia after the bushfires

The MP for Warringah, in Sydney, said it was time for Australia to be “unified in addressing climate change” and the government needed to join trading partners including the UK, Japan and South Korea which have adopted net zero emissions by 2050 targets.

The Greens senator Janet Rice said: “The Morrison government must urgently respond to the royal commission’s report, and any response that does not include quitting coal and cutting emissions will be an abject failure and a betrayal of the Australian people.”

Paul Ronalds, the chief executive of Save the Children, said the commission had failed to address the specific needs of children in its report, despite more than 14,000 children having been forced to flee their homes during the fires.

“There are many families in vulnerable positions and we can’t have a repeat of the last bushfire season where children were an afterthought,” he said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation said in the face of climate disasters and extreme weather events, governments were falling short.

“We have a small window of opportunity to reduce the impact climate change has on future bushfire seasons and the threat it presents to life, property and nature,” the climate change program manager, Gavan McFadzean, said.