Government responds to bushfire royal commission amid increasing pressure to reduce emissions

In its findings, the royal commission repeatedly identified climate change as a factor that will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

The federal government has responded to the bushfire royal commission's final report.

The federal government has responded to the bushfire royal commission's final report. Source: AAP

Laws will be introduced to enable the declaration of a national emergency, the government has announced, as it comes under increasing pressure to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. 

The federal government on Friday responded to the findings of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, which was called in the aftermath of the 2019-2020 bushfire season. 

It provided 80 recommendations across a range of areas relating to improving the nation's response capabilities, including the coordination of all levels of government, warning systems for the public and climate data, along with the role of the Australian Defence Force and its disaster response. 

The federal government has supported fully, or in principle, most of the 55 recommendations directed at it specifically or at all levels of government.

In its findings, the royal commission repeatedly identified climate change as a factor that will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, with this elevated risk already locked in by the effects of global warming.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked whether reducing carbon emissions should be considered a practical means of responding to the disaster threat. 

“It's about emissions reduction. Of course it is. No argument about that from the government, ” he told reporters. 

“But it also must be to protect Australians and keep them safe. It is about resilience measures. And that's what our response will certainly address.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

The federal government is under increasing pressure to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, following a warning from Australia's chief science agency about the country's changing climate. 

According to the sixth biennial State of the Climate report, released on Friday, the country's average temperatures have now increased by 1.44 degrees since 1910. Last year was the hottest year on record.

Dr Jaci Brown, Director of the CSIRO's Climate Science Centre, said current trends indicate Australia will likely see 3.2 degrees of warming by the end of the century. This would bring more frequent extreme weather events such as bushfires and droughts. 

As states and territories have signalled their support for a net-zero emissions target by 2050, the federal government has maintained its resistance to the long-term target.

This is despite the emissions goal already being backed by international allies, such as the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the incoming Biden administration in the United States.

Mr Morrison said he would like to see the nation achieve this outcome “as soon as we can” but wouldn’t commit to a target without a costed plan to get there.

“Australia will set our response and we'll meet our commitments based on our national interests and the policies we set here in Australia,” he said. 

Australia has pledged to lower emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of the Paris Agreement, with the federal government focused on a technology-driven approach to reducing emissions.

The bushfire royal commission was called following the devastating Black Summer of bushfires in Australia.
Source: AAP

The nation’s chief scientist Alan Finkel said the fact that “Australia’s climate is changing” had to be considered when adopting all other practical disaster response measures.

“You have to acknowledge that and then work hard to deal with adapting to the problems that are there,” he said.

“We absolutely have to be doing our piece to mitigate, to avoid emissions, to reduce emissions into the future.” 

Mr Finkel said he would like to see Australia proceed towards a net zero target "as fast as we can do so with economic efficiency". 

Royal commission recommendations

The government’s response to the royal commission includes new laws to declare a national emergency and a federal agency to lead on resilience, relief and recovery.

The declaration would fast-track national responses to bushfires, cyclones and floods, allowing the provision of capabilities beyond those of states and territories.

A national agency will also be set up from July to take the lead on natural disaster resilience, relief and recovery.

Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud said the steps were not about taking over disaster response efforts from the states but providing support where there is a need for surge in resources.

“Whether that be the Defence Force or any other federal agency, to achieve that,” he said. 

“We will do with respect of the states in working to make sure the main and sole goal is to keep Australians safe.”

The government will not be taking up a recommendation for it to adopt “sovereign aerial fire fighting” capability, saying it has no desire to replicate or replace this capacity. 

However, a new virtual climate and disaster risk information and services centre known as "Resilience Services" will also be set up in mid next year.

It would support the work of Emergency Management Australia and the new national resilience, relief and recovery agency.

The centre will connect information held by the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

Additional reporting AAP

Published 13 November 2020 at 4:58pm, updated 13 November 2020 at 5:14pm
By Tom Stayner