Carbon cap, carbon dioxide, carbon emissions, carbon fibre, carbon footprint, carbon market, carbon monoxide, carbon permits, carbon sequestration, carbon sink, carbon tax. Had enough? These are just a sample of the 40-odd words and phrases you can find that dominate the headlines of the Australian media. If you skip all articles with carbon in the headline you can read a paper in five minutes. I’ve reached the point where I yearn for a carbon monoxide diet.
As I wrote in the Australian in 2009, ‘I cannot recall an issue where, to coin a phrase, so much is debated by so many, knowing so little.’ If anything the situation has worsened, and I suspect the great majority have tuned out.
Most appear to accept that global warming is occurring, but disagree on who causes it and how to ameliorate it. No single form of energy appears acceptable. Hydroelectricity, nuclear power, coal and oil are no-nos, leaving us with wind and solar.
They were the flavour of the month until it was found that wind farms were sending those living close to them batty. Solar looked like the sole survivor until we learned that it was outrageously expensive. Just ask Barry O’Farrell.
Among the millions of words spoken and written about carbon emissions, the fact that a third of Australia’s emissions come from bushfires is never mentioned. As one who has spent the two years since Black Saturday trying to convince politicians of the massive benefits of early warning bushfire detection systems, it’s difficult to understand why.
When I asked an ‘expert’ why bushfires were not part of the equation, he replied: ‘Natural disasters were excluded from the Kyoto agreement because they are uncontrollable.’
He had a point — but not a very good one. It is undeniable that earthquakes, volcanos, cyclones, floods, tsunamis and twisters are uncontrollable and no country should be held responsible for carbon emissions that occur as a result. But bushfires? There are natural disasters during heatwaves and electrical storms and because of spontaneous combustion, but a large proportion of bushfires are anything but ‘natural’.
Mark Burgess, chief executive of the Police Federation of Australia, quoted a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology and Monash University, which stated that Australia averages 54,000 bushfires per year, of which between 20,000 and 30,000 were due to arson. What has been missing from the bushfire debate is that a great many of them can be prevented if the modern technology available is used. Cameras can not only identify the bushfires but in many cases the arsonists as well. Paul Collins, in his book Burn, states that the number of reports of arson increased from 1,200 in 1975 to 10,000 in 1995. The cost: $500 million per year. Imagine what it will be like if the ‘Big Australians’ have a win and we continue to build in the bush.
Professor Mark Adams of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre estimates that the 2003 and 2006-7 bushfires could have put 20 to 30 million tonnes of carbon (70 to 105 million tones of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere; that the 2009 bushfires (Black Saturday) created 165 million tones of CO2 emissions, and that Australia’s total annual emissions are approximately 330 million tonnes, of which 110 million are from bushfires.
All of the above raises the question: why have the politicians and bureaucrats made no effort to use the early warning technology developed by the German aerospace industry and NASA in planning the Mars Pathfinder mission? The technology, known as FireWatch, has reduced the number of fires in Germany by 92 per cent and is being introduced in Lithuania and trialled in Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Estonia, Croatia, Greece, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and Montenegro.
The technology ‘can detect precisely the existence of smoke and its location before the bushfire has taken hold enabling emergency services to deploy the resources to extinguish the fire … a sensor can scan an arc of 400 sq km and rotate automatically through 360 degrees every six minutes, 24/7. It can detect the difference between smoke, cloud and mist. Now with night vision it can operate round the clock.’ Fires can be spotted in six minutes rather than six hours.
What is extraordinary is that to the best of my knowledge neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition has mentioned the technology or the way in which it can reduce Australia’s carbon emissions.
To his credit, urged on by the then member for McEwen, Fran Bailey (Liberal) and Labor’s Bill Shorten, PM Rudd funded trials in the Otway Ranges in Victoria and Tumut in NSW conducted by the CSIRO.
I’m not qualified to comment on the final CSIRO report, but David Packham, a former principal research scientist in the CSIRO Bushfire Section in Victoria, certainly is.
After a scathing critique of the trials, in which he stated that the report showed ‘a lack of willingness to explore new ideas and concepts’, he urged its rejection.
The CSIRO report and state emergency services prefer ‘human fire-spotters’ who can’t see at night or work around the clock.
Most surprising is the total lack of interest in using the new technology. We are unlikely to match Germany’s 92 per cent reduction in forest fires because we have billions of flammable eucalypts, but a substantial reduction in Australia’s emissions is certain.
Australia’s ignoring of early warning bushfire systems commenced at Kyoto and has existed to this day.
If more than half our bushfires are caused by arsonists and a third of our carbon emissions came from bushfires, why isn’t Australia doing everything we can to reduce these emissions, particularly when we have the technology to do so? What does it matter where the carbon abatement occurs, so long as it happens? Bushfires should not be lumped in with volcanos. Australia can easily exceed our goals of reducing carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2050.
Not only should Australia do everything possible to reduce our emissions, but by using fire detection technology we can inspire the rest of the world to follow suit: Australia is not the only country with a serious bush or forest fire problem. And not only will we reduce emissions, but we will save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars’ worth of property.
Barry Cohen, a former Labor minister in the Hawke government, was an adviser to FireWatch until recently.