It’s probably fair to say that environmental events in 2019 brought climate change in Australia to the forefront of our collective awareness. Our bushfires last summer made global news. Not only were they devastating to wildlife and human residents alike, they also brought about several questions and arguments around why and how exactly it got so bad. Bushfires, planned as well as accidental, have been a seasonal occurrence for us, but will the sheer scale of 2019 become the new normal? And, as our urban areas continue to expand outwards, will the effects, beyond the stifling air quality experienced in Sydney and Melbourne, start infringing ever more onto our heavily populated cities?
From a purely fiscal point of view, climate change poses a significant risk to the Australian economy. Billions of dollars worth of Australian assets are exposed to sea level rise, flooding and bushfire. In 2019, thousands of Aussie businesses in fire affected regions experienced a severe impact on trade with domestic tourism effectively halting during what would have been their busiest time of the year. Extreme weather can also disrupt other critical business operations and supply chains, for example, 14% of the total burned area in the bushfires was farmland; the same farmers who were already reeling from drought conditions in prior years.
Even before the bushfires occurred, climate change had become a buzzword again in 2019, largely due to a young lady from Sweden. Greta Thunberg’s marches for climate change gained international recognition, educating and energising an entire generation. Who can forget Greta’s outspoken speech telling off world leaders at the UN’s Climate Action Summit? Awareness of climate change, and activism around it, is at a new high, especially amongst younger generations who are rightly concerned about their future. Science and research are backing up their stance, with average temperatures having consistently risen since the beginning of the 20th century. There have also been increases in extreme weather events; ocean levels are rising, and some Aussies have now personally experienced worse air pollution than Beijing!
What impacts will the climate change trajectory have on our way of life in 2100? We look at how Australia is looking today and where we might be headed to.
Australia: from hot to hotter
Perhaps over-delivering on the popular ‘Aussie brand’ export of hot sunny days, beachside recreation, and summertime barbies that Tourism Australia likes to market overseas, the CSIRO has reported that, due to global warming, Australia is becoming even hotter. We will also experience more extreme heat (days above 35 °C) and longer fire seasons because of climate change.
Since the beginning of the 20th century Australia has experienced an increase of nearly 1 °C in average annual temperatures. This rate of increase has accelerated even more over the last 50 years and is predicted to continue. The City of Sydney, for example, could have an increase of up to 4.5 °C by 2100. This could have repercussions on medical conditions caused by extreme heat, an increase in the size and frequency of bushfires, and an increase in drought conditions and air pollution, all of which are probably not topics that are top of Australia’s list to market overseas!
Make Australia Rain Again
Already proclaimed one of the driest nations on Earth, record low rainfall following successive seasons of above average temperatures meant that the summer of 2018/19 was the worst drought in living memory for many Australians. Our winter of 2018 was also the warmest and driest since records began. Rainfall patterns are projected to be problematic, with rain becoming heavier but more infrequent. It is also expected to become even more common in the summer, which could have an adverse effect on seasonal crops, thus impacting on Australia’s domestic food supply chain.
Livestock culling is also something that could hit all Australians in the pocket. As food supplies and grain silos are emptied due to crop failure, desperate farmers are being forced to slaughter animals. Prolonged periods of culling could impact on the size of Australia’s national herd, ushering in a period of livestock rebuilding and higher prices for the industry, as well as the higher carbon footprint cost of importing from overseas.
Air that is the equivalent of smoking 37 cigarettes
The urbanised areas of larger cities like Sydney or Melbourne may not have been directly impacted by bushfire flames, but residents won’t easily forget the orange hue in the sky, the distinct smell of bonfire, or the difficulty in breathing when outdoors.
Australia's clear air standard is a PM2.5 level of eight micrograms per cubic metre. By comparison, smoking a single cigarette produces 20 micrograms per cubic metre. Readings in Sydney during the bushfire crisis were as high as 734 micrograms on some days - the equivalent of about 37 cigarettes. Air quality levels were recorded as 10 times worse than some of the most polluted cities in the world.
The increased risk of extreme bushfires could have an ongoing impact on urban as well as rural dwellers. Controversy and debate, such as that in the 2020 Australian Open around Tennis players having to perform in extremely poor air quality conditions, may become a regular debate.
Australian towns and cities at risk of becoming the next Atlantis
Global warming has been a cause of sea levels rising for several years now, but worryingly has actually been accelerating more recently. A study released by NASA has found that the annual rate of sea level rise has increased from 2.5mm in the 1990s up to 3.4mm per year today. Going forward, in a low emission scenario, the sea levels could rise a further 69cm by 2100 (relative to the level in 2000), or even a further 111cm in a high emission scenario.
With more than 80% of the population living within 50km of the coast, this could put Australians and Australian businesses at risk. Coastal risk research undertaken by NGIS places well known and iconic Aussie locations such as Melbourne’s Southbank, the WACA in Perth, Sydney Airport, and Byron Bay as potentially having the water getting a little too close for comfort!
The impact of climate change is devastating
Climate change can and will have a dramatic effect on our biodiversity, wildlife, health, food production, travel, and general infrastructure.
A sobering wildlife statistic is that an estimated billion animals died during the 2019/20 Australian bushfires. Many of us will have seen heartbreaking images of the plight of one of our most recognisable animals, the Koala. Unfortunately, they are relatively slow moving, and their instinctive danger avoidance reaction is to climb up a tree, which during the fires left them extremely vulnerable.
Change is often a catalyst for evolution in the animal kingdom. Some birds of prey, such as Kites and Falcons, have been adapting. Some have been spotted picking up burning twigs and flying to unaffected areas, dropping the twigs and started new fires. They are thought to be using fire to flush out their prey (small mammals, other birds, lizards) as they attempt to escape the blazes. Ingenious adaptation for the falcons. Dangerous for our dry bushland.
There is no doubt that climate change is impacting on humans as well as wildlife. Droughts and bushfires have impacted our economy and our biodiversity and wildlife. Farmers are having to make extremely tough calls on their crops and livestock, which is impacting how much Aussies need to pay for basics. City dwellers have experienced the worst air quality in generations, and we have all had to ration our water usage during restrictions. So, what can we do about it?
Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement is a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the UN last year that Australia was doing its bit to address climate change and is "balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and our economic future".
Many people do not feel that this is enough and are taking matters into their own hands. With technology and engineering evolving, there has been an increase in demand for electric vehicles. According to the Global EV Outlook 2019, the global electric car fleet exceeded 5.1 million in 2018 - a 2 million increase from 2017 - nearly doubling EV sales in just one year. There is also an increase in car share memberships; drone taxis are being developed, and more people are now working from home than in any previous decade. Will this result in fewer cars on the roads for the first time in a century?
What about flight travel reduction? As technology continues to evolve, do we actually need to be physically present? This may support the case for reducing business travel as companies look to cut costs. However, humans do have an instinctive need to explore. Homo Sapiens spread across the world from Africa ~70,000 years ago on the hunt for new pastures, so potentially we will continue to have that thirst for travel and discovery millennia later. Continued improvements in airplane fuel efficiency may help to reduce the environmental impact.
Australia is known as the lucky country. Despite some environmental setbacks, we do still have an abundance of domestic produce and livestock. Will we continue to import produce or will the trend of ‘buying Australian’ and supporting our Aussie farmers continue? Why buy a pineapple with an extensive carbon footprint when you can get it straight from sunny Queensland?
One thing most experts agree on, is that if we do nothing to combat climate change now, then the Australian environment will be fundamentally worse in 2100. The best time to have taken positive steps was decades ago. The second-best time is now.