Scenes of devastation from Australia's fires have been heart-breaking. How do we stop this suffering? For many campaigners and politicians, the answer is clear-cut: drastic climate policies. But when we examine the evidence, this simple answer falls short.
Australia is the world's most fire-prone continent. In 1900, 11 percent of its surface burned. These days, some 5 percent 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 the burned area, an increase from 5.3 percent of Australia to 6 percent.
This increase is not trivial, and it is an argument for effective climate change action. By far the most impactful, practical policy 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 just 1.1 percent of global energy use and the International Energy Agency estimates that even after we spend US$3 trillion more on subsidies, they will not even reach 5 percent 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
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 the wildfires 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, wildfires burn less land than they used to. Since 1900, the global burnt area has reduced by more than one-third, because of agriculture, fire suppression and forest management. In the satellite era, both NASA and other groups document significant decreases.
Surprisingly, this decrease is even true for Australia. Satellites show that from 1997-2018 the burnt area declined by one-third. Australia's current fire season has seen less area burnt than previous years. Up to Jan 26, 2020, wildfire burned 19.4 million hectares in Australia－about half the average burn over the similar time frame of 37 million hectares in the satellite record. (Actually satellite imaging shows 46 million hectares burnt, but 9 million hectares are likely from prescribed burns.)
When the media suggests Australia's fires are "unprecedented in scale", they are wrong. Australia's burnt area declined by more than one-third from 1900-2000, and has declined over the satellite period. This fire season at the time of writing, 2.5 percent of Australia's area has burned compared to the last 10 years, of 4.8 percent wildfires average by this point.
What is different this year is that fires have mostly been in New South Wales (home to Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne). 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 cherry-picking these two regions with more fire and ignoring the remaining 87 percent of Australia's landmass, the burned area has declined.
Peer-reviewed estimates of the future of Australia's 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 wildfires for Australia today. An increase will only become detectable 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 wildfires is about "rapidly transition 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 percent of the nation's annual economy, or US$5 trillion over the century. It will only reduce global temperatures by 0.002°C 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 to dramatically change its climate policy overnight, the impact on fires will 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 wildfires this year would be literally immeasurable. Even if Australia could somehow be entirely fossil fuel-free for the entire century, its burnt area in 2100 would be 5.997 percent instead of 6 percent.
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 straight-forward measures that would help now.
Wildfire scientists have consistently told us that 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 the spread of lightning-caused wildfires, 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.
The author is president of the Copenhagen Consensus, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS