The toll of Australia’s Black Summer of bushfires

Australia’s Summer of Crisis  was published by the Climate Council of Australia in March, describing the economic and climate change impacts of the bushfires of 2019/20. Although the bushfires were widespread, the report focuses on the two most severely affected areas of the country:  New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. It estimates that there was a 10-20 percent drop in international visitors, so that the tourism sector alone will lose at least $4.5 billion.  Bushfire-related insurance claims in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria totalled an estimated value of $1.9 billion.  The report also estimates the unprecedented climate impacts – between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere ( Australia’s annual emissions are around 531 million tonnes). The report states that the hot dry conditions which fuelled the fires will only worsen, and calls urgently for an end to fossil fuel production and export, and a plan to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to net zero.

Health impacts

Unprecedented smoke‐related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia”, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (March 12) estimated that bushfire smoke was responsible for more deaths than the fires, and extraordinary health impacts. The researchers estimate there were  417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2027 for respiratory problems, and 1305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma.  The article is summarized by The Guardian here  , which also reports that the authors have obtained funding for follow-up studies through the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council .  The CAR website offers fact sheets and research summaries about bushfire impacts.

 

New climate change research network launches, saying climate won’t wait for the pandemic to end

A new network of university researchers launched on April 2: the International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) .  The  network will  showcase climate change research from 40 universities in 18 countries , with a wide range of disciplinary expertise, including engineering, economics, law, social science and planning, as well as climate science.

With a website tag line, “Collaborating for Climate Impact”, the IUCA states in its  official press release :

“Alliance members are to work together to identify the most effective ways to communicate research-based facts related to climate change to the public. Members will engage in work across climate change science, impact, mitigation strategies and adaptation.”

The network is spearheaded by the University of New South Wales,Sydney, and also includes the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, the Sorbonne, and from Australia, University of Melbourne and Monash University as well as the UNSW. From Canada, only McGill University in Montreal is included so far in the full list of member universities, here .  A deliberate strategy was to include universities from emerging economies in the group.

The decision to launch now, amidst the “information saturation” of Covid-19 was explained in a press release from the University of New South Wales:

“This new platform is needed now more than ever as the world grapples with providing a coordinated approach to tackling climate change. …Notwithstanding current urgencies around the COVID-19 pandemic, the alliance members decided not to delay the formation of the alliance due to the pressing and ongoing need to accelerate climate change mitigation and improve decision making.”

That theme is expanded in  a related  press release on April 1, titled simply: Climate change mitigation can’t wait for Covid-19 to play out.

An expanding role for experts

The experts in the new International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) may benefit from the important and highly visible role of scientific experts in the fight against the pandemic.  Lesson #1 in Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood’s blog,  6 lessons for climate action from Canada’s COVID-19 response is “Listen to scientists.”  He argues: “At every stage of this pandemic, the public narrative and the associated policy response has largely been guided by epidemiologists and public health officials. ….Yet climate scientists are still sidelined in the public discourse and climate policy is still guided more by short-term political considerations than physical evidence. The climate crisis demands a more central role for climate science.”

Another  recent comment  in After the Coronavirus, Two Sharply Divergent Paths on Climate”  from Yale350 (April 7)  states: “Some policy experts are optimistic that victory over the coronavirus will instill greater appreciation for what government, science, and business can do to tackle climate change. But others believe the economic damage caused by the virus will set back climate efforts for years to come.” The article outlines the two approaches, with a general view that the politics of the U.S. may continue to conspire against informed fight against climate change, while the EU will continue to follow a more evidence-driven path. 

Australia Senate Committee Report shows a green economy is possible

Flag_of_Australia.svgOn 31 July 2019, the Australian Senate established a Select Committee into the Jobs for the Future in Regional Areas, with a mandate to inquire and report on new industries and employment opportunities that can be created in regions and rural areas. The terms of reference were broad and included “lessons learned from structural adjustments in the automotive, manufacturing and forestry industries and energy privatisation ; the importance of long-term planning ; measures to guide the transition into new industries and employment; and the role of vocational education providers, in enabling reskilling and retraining.”

Public consultations were conducted in seven locations and 174 submissions were received from academics, policy experts, government representatives and unions, between July and September.  The Report of the Select Committee was released in early December 2019, but because Senators were unable to set aside politics and arrive at consensus recommendations, the report consists mostly of excerpts from the submissions heard.  There are 14 recommendations made by the Chair , and separate recommendations by Labor members and by Government Senators, who said: “The word ‘transition’ is a loaded term which necessarily involves preconceptions around the direction of the Australian economy. The issue surrounding the definition of ‘transition’ is one of the reasons why the committee could not reach agreement on recommendations.”

Neverthess, the report and submissions are a valuable record of the current situation in Australia because they discuss examples of the technological innovations in current industry, and future job opportunities in renewable energy, biofuel, mining, lithium-ion battery manufacture, waste management, hydrogen energy export to Asia, and ecological services and natural infrastructure (including site rehabilitation and reef restoration).

Some excerpts:

“… the growth in renewable energy generation presents direct opportunities for increasing manufacturing activity: Installation and construction employs large numbers of people for short periods of time, but a globally competitive renewables manufacturing industry creates jobs for decades. The Victorian state government has only scratched the surface of the opportunity for Australia in this space. They have reopened the Ford plant in Geelong and allowed Danish multinational Vestas to start assembling wind turbines, but there is also Keppel Prince in Portland and Wilson Transformers in Wodonga, who have also been involved in the renewables supply chain, creating high skilled, meaningful manufacturing jobs.”

“…. the GFG Alliance in Whyalla which is proposing to revitalise the steelworks and bring down the cost of production with a variety of innovative and technologically advanced initiatives. Depending on the final configuration, a portion of the energy used at the steelworks would be sourced from a 280 MW solar farm in the Whyalla region….. Sun Metals, a solar electricity generation farm, supplies the existing zinc refinery with about 30 per cent of its electricity needs. That refinery is expanding its zinc production and is looking to expand its portfolio of renewable generation assets to further reduce its exposure to volatile electricity grid prices. Similarly, the development and commercialisation of the EnPot technology for aluminium smelting has the potential to redefine and expand the role of aluminium smelting in Australia as an electricity grid stabiliser as well as a value-adding base metal producer.”

Regarding future skills and labour market concerns:

The Centre for Policy Futures characterized the role of industry skills councils as critical to ensure that training matches the available jobs.  “… These councils must be part of the community consultation process; work with the public authority to identify what future employment opportunities might look like; and determine the future employment, reskilling and retaining opportunities that might be available.”

Concerns about the skill differences between workers currently employed in coal mines and power-stations were highlighted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures: “The nature of the workforce in coalmining means that the transition there is going to be more challenging than it is in power generation. Power generation has a lot of trades, technicians and professionals. One in two coalminers is a truck driver or a machine operator—the second-lowest skill category. So it is going to be a lot more challenging than power generation, where you’ve got a relatively skilled workforce.”…. Regional Development Australia South West noted that: Average wages here in the mining sector are $137,000. Average wages in tourism are $49,000. You can’t replace those mining jobs with tourism jobs.”

Regarding Transition Planning :

Several submissions supported the creation of a National Transition Authority, with responsibility for planning and collaboration, but  not replacing the need for local transition planning bodies.

The Next Economy (Submission #16 here ) put forward a model for a national Transition Authority which would : 1.  oversee funding and coordination of transition planning at both a national and regional level 2.  coordinate with other authorities and government agencies to ensure that the scale, type and pace of the transition will enable us to meet international climate obligations to reduce emissions 3.  coordinate an industry-wide, multi-employer redeployment scheme to provide retrenched workers with the opportunity to transfer to other power generators 4.  ensure companies meet their responsibilities to workers in terms of redundancy payments and entitlements, retraining opportunities, and generating jobs through full decommissioning and rehabilitation of sites .

Sadly, these recommendations and examples hold little sway with the current government of Australia, as Prime Minister Morrison continues to support the development of new coal projects.  The Senators’ Comments in the Select Committee Report are a catalogue of government positions, summed up by this :

“In the view of the Government Senators, the majority report (approved by the Greens and the ALP Committee members) inadequately highlights the importance of jobs associated with coal mining and oil and gas production to the Australia’s economy.”

The Australian bushfire disaster: what does it mean for firefighters and workers?

There are many themes amid the story of the horrifying Australian bushfires of 2019/20:  destruction of habitat and homes, the reality of climate change, and the resilience and self-sacrifice of Australians, exemplified in their unique tradition of community volunteer firefighters, or “firies”.   The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) recognized their contribution in a statement which includes: “Workers in the emergency services and volunteers in their own communities are on the front lines of defending people, their homes and community infrastructure. We thank them profusely for their efforts and their courage. They are working heroes.”

australia firefightersAustralia’s Volunteer Firefighters Find It Hard to Pause, Even for Christmas in the New York Times (Dec. 24 2019) describes the self-sacrifice displayed by these volunteers, but it also questions how sustainable such a system can be in such a long-running and widespread disaster. Exhaustion is one constraint; financial necessity to earn money is another.  Only under public pressure did the government finally announce compensation for the volunteers  in December.  The Sydney Morning Herald offers a detailed “Explainer: How the Bushfire Compensation Scheme works”  (Jan. 12), which notes that some union leaders “have called for amendments to the Fair Work Act to ensure workers have the right to paid emergency services leave as part of the National Employment Standards.”  This idea is taken up in “Unions and employers join forces to demand increased bushfire relief for workers and firies”, also in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 12), which highlights the “fine print” limitations for firefighters’ :

“The federal government and some state governments have said they will provide eligible volunteer firefighters with up to $300 per day capped at a total of $6000 as compensation for time off work to fight bushfires, but firies can only claim from day 11 and the hours spent on patrol must align with their normal working hours…This means if a volunteer firefighter normally works from 9am to 5pm, but is out fighting blazes from midday to midnight, they can only claim five hours’ pay.”

Occupational health and safety concerns:

The Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a December call for change in “Laws must adapt to keep workers safe in changing climate” , focussed on the occupational health and safety issues of extreme heat and smoke for all workers.  Their call for change was accompanied by two Fact Sheets:  Smoke Haze – Bushfires and Air Quality  and Working in Heat . Another important occupational health issue, the emotional and psychological toll of such disasters, is described in “Black Saturday firefighters want you to listen to them, not call them ‘heroes‘” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation  (Jan. 3).

On January 7, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released  this statement and call for government action :

  “No workers should ever be required to work in dangerous environments. Smoke levels are well beyond the hazardous range in huge areas of the country. Any workers, especially those who work outside, who have concerns about their safety should contact their union.

Workers should be aware that the NES provides for unpaid leave for the full period of time that workers are engaged in volunteer firefighting or other emergency service work. Union negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements will also often provide additional paid leave provisions.

In some circumstances, workers will also be able to access personal leave if they are unable to return to work due to being evacuated or having nowhere to live, for instance if they or a family member have suffered mental or physical injury as a result of the fires.

Under no circumstances can a worker or their employer already dealing with this devastating crisis face the added insult of being left without an income or a bill they cannot pay for a service they have not used or received.

To make sure this happens, the Federal Government’s response needs to make it clear that everyone impacted by this crisis is entitled to support and assistance and should not be left worse off.  This should include ensuring that there is comprehensive relief from debt repayments, mortgages and utility bills while families get back on their feet.

Any worker who faces issues with their bank, other lending institutions or who is fired from their job due to the fallout from these fires should immediately contact their union.”

The ACTU has established a Bushfire Relief Fund here , where donations can be made to support union members who may need more than the government support, and another campaign, here, for Australians to volunteer their skills and time in the rebuilding effort.   The National Construction Division of the CFMEU also announced their own $100,000 donation to the bushfire recovery effort in a press release .

australia nasa smokeA few other recommended articles about the Australian Bushfires :  from The Guardian, “We are seeing the very worst of our scientific predictions come to pass in these bushfires” (Jan. 3); “Australia’s fires have pumped out more emissions than 100 nations combined” (MIT Technology Review, Jan. 10) ; “Terror, hope, anger, kindness: the complexity of life as we face the new normal”  (Jan. 11, The Guardian);    “In Australia, the air poses a threat; people are rushing to hospitals in cities choked by smoke (Washington Post, Jan. 12); “Australia’s bushfires offer heated view into longstanding misinformation on climate change” (National Observer, Jan. 7); “Bushfire emergency leads thousands to protest against PM and climate change policies “( Australian Broadcasting Corp.,Jan. 10) , and the latest political development: “Scott Morrison to take proposal for bushfire royal commission to Cabinetreported on January 12 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also reported as  “Australia’s Leader Calls for Inquiry Into Government Response to Fires” in the New York Times (Jan. 12).  

Australian companies are moving to renewable energy to meet employee expectations for climate action

reenergizingREenergising Australian business: the corporate race to 100% renewable energy was released by  Greenpeace Australia Pacific on December 4.

Drawing on public information as well as 34 responses to a survey sent to 80 “big-brand” companies, the report presents analysis of the corporate move to renewable energy, covering seven major industry sectors, as well as case studies of individual companies. Of the 80 companies profiled: 30% have committed to move to 100% renewable energy ;  26% have signed a corporate power purchase agreement , and  65% have invested in rooftop or onsite solar.

Regarding job creation: The report estimates the impact if companies moved to 100% renewable energy to power their operations: for 3 of Australia’s largest companies  (Woolworths, Coles and Telstra)  it would create 4194 construction job-years and 232 ongoing jobs ; the 10 largest companies in the property and construction sector would create more than 1000 construction job-years, and the 14 largest telecommunications, IT, and technology companies would create around 2000 construction job-years.

What is driving the corporate move to renewables? “The UComms polling found 67% of Australians would prefer to work for a company that uses renewable energy, rather than one that doesn’t, while 100% of companies surveyed by Greenpeace reported that a key reason for shifting to renewable energy is employee expectation. In 2019, the Edelman Trust Barometer found 67% of employees “expect that prospective employers will join them in taking action on societal issues” and 76% say “CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose it.”